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Cities, counties dispute annexation before House panel

ATLANTA - City and county leaders from across Georgia confronted each other for more than two hours Friday over legislation that would overhaul the state law governing municipal annexations.

With the two sides alternating speakers during a subcommittee hearing, mayors attacked a bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington, as an assault on the rights of property owners in unincorporated areas wishing to be annexed into cities.

County commissioners countered that they're only seeking a say over annexation decisions that now are completely in cities' control.

Under current law, annexation disputes between cities and counties are referred to nonbinding mediation. If an agreement can't be reached, the case goes to a citizen review panel.

But cities seeking to annex unincorporated land are free to ignore the panel's recommendations.

"Many cities have used this power quite aggressively to pull in commercial corridors for the (tax) revenue,'' Holt told the subcommittee. "Many cities' boundaries look like octopuses, with tentacles reaching out into those corridors.''

A case in point is the annexation by the city of Social Circle last November of more than 1,100 acres in Newton County, which the county is challenging in court. Social Circle straddles the border of Newton and Walton counties.

The city council also rezoned the property, a corridor that stretches along the north side of Interstate 20, to allow greater density.

Aaron Varner, chairman of the Newton County Commission, said the rezoning would undermine the county's attempts to protect watersheds in that area by keeping density low.

"The people who are going to be making land-use decisions inside Newton County that will affect the people of Newton County aren't accountable to the people of Newton County,'' he said.

County officials from other parts of the state also complained about annexation disputes with cities inside their borders, before and after the hearing.

Gwinnett County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who didn't get a chance to address the subcommittee before the hearing concluded, accused the city of Dacula of gobbling up unincorporated land at a rapid pace and then raising densities.

But the mayors who addressed the subcommittee said that in virtually every annexation case, the affected property owners asked to be annexed, while counties don't object in the vast majority of instances.

Pat Graham, the mayor of Braselton, said her fast-growing city received 51 annexation requests between 1999 and last year affecting more than 3,900 acres and approved 45. She said only one of those requests drew an objection, and it was resolved through mediation.

Graham said because annexed properties tend to gain in value because of development, counties have actually added tax revenue through annexations.

"The counties haven't lost any (tax) value,'' she said. "We've added value to undeveloped property.''

"The current law works,'' added Douglasville Mayor Mickey Thompson.

Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess said city-county disputes over annexation really are more about local politics than any inherent systemic flaws that need to be fixed by the Legislature.

"The leaders of Newton County don't like our city and don't want our city in their county,'' he said.

But Varner said it's the current state law that's preventing cities and counties from solving annexation disputes without having to turn to lawmakers for help.

He said allowing disputing parties to go to binding arbitration would give cities and counties an equal chance to present their arguments and not lead to a rash of decisions favoring counties.

The subcommittee did not vote on Holt's bill. The panel's chairman, Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, said he will hold more hearings in the coming weeks before putting the legislation to a vote.