DeKalb Commissioner Michelle Long Spears speaks at the Brookhaven City Council meeting.

The city of Brookhaven’s plan to annex 462 acres of the Toco Hills neighborhood from DeKalb County faced backlash from residents and business owners during a public hearing at city hall on June 28.

About 100 residents of Brookhaven and unincorporated DeKalb were in attendance, along with business owners, religious leaders, DeKalb County School Board member Whitney McGinniss, and DeKalb County Commissioners Lorraine Cochran-Johnson and Michelle Long Spears.  

Bounded by North Druid Hills Road, Houston Mill Road and Lavista Road, the property in question is mainly residential with some mixed-use, office, and commercial properties, including the busy Toco Hill Shopping Center. If annexed, DeKalb stands to lose $2 million of annual revenue from the shopping center at Clairmont and North Druid Hills Roads. 

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said at a June 27 meeting sponsored by the county that while he’d spoken to homeowners and business owners, he’d yet to have a face-to-face with anyone from the city.

“I have yet to sit in a meeting with anyone from Brookhaven to discuss this annexation. It just hasn’t happened. I have worked with Brookhaven on many issues, SPLOST being one of them, so I don’t paint with a broad brush. I’m speaking specifically of this issue,” said Thurmond.

Brookhaven Councilman John Funny denied this.

“Understand that the mayor spoke to the CEO, regardless of what he said last night. I was there. He called the commissioners, spoke to all with the exception of two. So there are communications going on regardless of what you’re being told,” said Funny.

A petition for the annexation of Merry Hills and Biltmore Acres was filed on May 30, showing 64% of the area’s 1,390 active voters and 62% of landowners are in favor of the move. 

However, many residents questioned the validity of signatures on the petition and the transparency of the process. There were two claims that petition signatures were forged.

Sharon Sadinoff said her residence was visited on three separate occasions by a woman soliciting signatures. Sadinoff never felt comfortable enough to sign the petition, and was surprised to see her property listed as one in favor of the annexation. 

“To be clear, we did not sign it,” said Sadinoff, who has been in touch with the DeKalb County attorney’s office. “We will be removing our address from the petition due to this clear violation. I hope the city will look into how gaining signatures was done.” 

Later Sadinoff told Rough Draft, pointing to the document, “That’s not my signature. I’m in my 50s. I know how to write in cursive, and I always sign using my middle initial.” 

The petition for the Sadinoff’s property was notarized by Robert Michael Smith of Hall County on Jan. 18. The same notary’s stamp was used on a petition that St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church said was forged. 

Barry Bynum, a member of St. Bartholomew’s, said the church is officially neutral on the annexation. But Bynam called the signatures of Rev. Alex Sherrill and Rev. Shirley Porter “suspected fraud.”

“These two people are never in the office at the same time. How is someone notarizing their signatures?” asked Bynum. 

Regarding the validity of signatures, Brookhaven Communications Director Burke Brennan told Rough Draft that the city would investigate concerns.

“Part of this process includes another 30 days to review the annexation application and hear concerns from all residents in Brookhaven and the proposed annexation area,” Burke said. “In the meantime, we welcome and encourage anyone to express their concerns to us and we will look into it.” 

More than one person said the islands – streets left out of the plan that would be surrounded by annexed land – seemed like gerrymandering. Others asked the city to slow down the annexation process.

DeKalb Commissioner Michelle Long Spears, a resident of Brookhaven, asked on behalf of her constituents about the formation of unincorporated islands, how boundaries were drawn and the public meeting process.

“More than one member of the public said it looked like the boundaries were drawn or gerrymandered to exclude apartments and/or areas of modest income,” Long Spears said. “Folks are confused.”

Three people spoke in favor of the annexation. One was Howard Ginsburg, whose name and address appears as the applicant on the annexation application. 

“I’ve done this on behalf of friends and neighbors,” Ginsburg said.

Toco Hill Shopping Center would be one of the properties annexed into Brookhaven. (Courtesy EDENS)

Commercial property owners opposed

EDENS, a national real estate development company that partially owns Toco Hill Shopping Center, objected to the proposed annexation.

EDENS submitted a letter of opposition to Dekalb County, and managing director Herbert Ames spoke during the Brookhaven public meeting requesting that “EDENS-owned properties be removed from the area being considered for annexation.”

Simon Engler, managing director of M&P shopping centers, asked for Briar Vista Plaza at Lavista Road and Briarcliff Road to also be excluded from the annexation. 

“An adjacent property was originally included, and is now excluded from the annexation. We would prefer not to engage in litigation, but we believe that both the proposed annexation and the proposed zoning are defective and violate our rights,” Engler said.

Nathan Hedges with Allen Morris Company is developing an apartment complex at 2490 North Druid Hills. The property is a half-mile from the new Arthur M. Blank Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospital. Hedges said the area east of Brookhaven is critical to the expansion of housing supply in Atlanta.

Hedges studied the Briarcliff node “with a lot of time and money” to develop a transitional plan. He criticized Brookhaven for a lack of communication about city planning and Special Services District (SSD) taxation.  

“The annexed businesses haven’t had any time to sit down with the city and understand what your intent is with the SSD, how our increment would be used to support projects that benefit both the businesses and the residents in the annexed area. None of that discussion has taken place,” said Hedges.

The mayor’s letter

Mayor John Ernst did not address the audience during the marathon meeting, instead he encouraged everyone to read a letter he wrote to potential new residents dated June 27.

The letter was left on a table in the back of the meeting room. Rough Draft asked the city for a copy of the letter, but did not receive it. Below are photographs of the two-page letter signed by Ernst.

In his letter, Ernst explains that the city hired Rosetta Stone Communications – a company, according to its website, that specializes in special elections and municipal contests – to “assist the community in completing an application for annexations into the city of Brookhaven, including by collecting the required signatures.”

The letter does not say how much Brookhaven paid Rosetta Stone, which recently worked to gather polling data showing support for the failed Buckhead City movement as well as conducting polling for local media outlets.

Ernst said that the present annexation application does not include “every property owner and/or registered voter who has already signed a petition. Some of those additional parcels will will be included in subsequent annexations.”

Ernst closed the letter by stating that the Toco Hills annexation was “not a land grab” but only to help assist property owners annex into Brookhaven.

Brookhaven City Council is expected to vote on the annexation at its July 25 meeting.

This story has been updated.

Logan C. Ritchie writes features and covers Brookhaven for Rough Draft Atlanta.