Chamblee and Brookhaven remain deadlocked over the fate of a section of land annexed last year by both cities. And the outcome could cost both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation last month that would have resolved the issue, in essence, ceding the 4.5-square mile tract into Chamblee. Deal’s action leaves the property in limbo until an appeals court decides the matter.
The veto shocked state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) who sponsored the legislation. Holcomb accused Deal of turning his back on all the local legislators, Republican and Democrat, who drafted and sponsored the bills at the direction of local residents.
“The governor has chosen to continue wasting taxpayers’ money by allowing this case to remain in the courts,” he said.
At issue is a tract in north DeKalb County that has been a battleground for both cities.
Last June, Highwoods Properties, which owns a mixed-use development called Century Center within the disputed area, applied to be annexed into Brookhaven. In response, Chamblee officials filed suit to stop the annexation and incorporate the property into its borders. In October, Brookhaven proceeded with the annexation, but that action was later suspended when a DeKalb County judge sided with Chamblee and allowed that city to hold a referendum on the matter. The annexation was subsequently approved by a nearly 2-1 majority of Chamblee residents in the November referendum.
Then, in December, Highwoods filed an appeal to have the judge’s order overturned. Brookhaven, which initially had joined the legal fight to take possession of the property, has since withdrawn its participation in funding the litigation. But, it has not rescinded its original vote to annex the property.
Complicating matters further, the Georgia Court of Appeals enjoined Chamblee from proceeding with its annexation while the litigation played out.
Holcomb said he would prefer having the matter settled legislatively and convince the governor to change his stance. Another option would be to override the veto, he said, but that could turn it into a political issue. “These vetoes are a triumph of frivolous litigation over sound policy,” Holcomb said.
Most likely, Holcomb said, the issue will simmer until the outcome of the November elections.
Jim Bacchetta, Atlanta division manager for Highwoods Properties, called the governor’s veto a sound decision in the wake of the legal issues surrounding the property.
He said one of the chief factors in preferring one city over the other lies in future development of the property. Century Center has 1.7 million square feet of office space and 340 multi-family units sitting on about 100 acres that is currently zoned “office/industrial” by DeKalb County. The designation allows for a two-story maximum height limitation.
“Brookhaven offers the opportunity to have appropriate zoning for the conditions that are in place today.”
Such a zoning change would enable Highwoods to redevelop the six, single-story, 45-year-old office buildings that are in degraded condition, he said.
“If we go into Brookhaven, they will grant us the proper zoning,” Bacchetta said. “Chamblee is not offering any improvement in the zoning.”
Oral arguments in the case were heard before the Court of Appeals April 19, and a decision is anticipated by the end of the year, Highwoods attorney Robert Highsmith said.
The company is arguing that Brookhaven’s annexation took place more than two months before Chamblee’s vote. “Our primary argument before the Court of Appeals is that until that legislation became effective, Brookhaven was free to exercise its powers to annex property adjacent to it, and that’s what it did,” Highsmith said.
Meanwhile, legal fees continue to mount for Chamblee. The city has already amassed more than $100,000 in litigation expenses. Moreover, the city has poured more than $1 million in people and equipment to service the new area.
Mayor Eric Clarkson said the vetoes came as a shock to him and the city. “It was my hope that through the actions of the General Assembly, we could get resolution to this issue, saving the city of Chamblee taxpayers unnecessary expense,” he said in a statement.
Chamblee Police Chief Donny Williams said he has added 22 additional officers and 10 more patrol cars to his department in order to service the new area.
“The court ruling that temporarily put Century Center back into (unincorporated) DeKalb didn’t change the fact of the number of people we needed to handle calls,” Williams said. “We needed a certain number, regardless.”
The city says the annexation effort was the result of residents of the area who approached local legislators seeking inclusion into Chamblee, and it was not a city-backed campaign. But, now that the city has committed a sizeable investment, it is vital that Century Center be a part of the annexation in order to help pay for the extra costs.
While Chamblee and Highwoods Properties duke it out in court, Brookhaven sits on the sidelines.
“We believe in people having their day in court,” Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis said. “We look forward to having this case resolved to the benefit of Brookhaven and Chamblee.”
Davis said the city’s interest in the property had little to do with tax revenues Century Center could provide. He said Brookhaven’s chief motivation was to give Century Center tools to spur economic development in an area adjacent to the city.
Even so, the mayor said he is ready to put the matter to rest and live on good terms with his neighbors in Chamblee.
“I hope we get some resolution soon,” Davis said. “I think that will benefit everybody, whichever way it goes.”
— Pat Fox