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Legislature takes up land fight

ATLANTA - County commissioners packed the seats and lined the walls inside a House committee room during a recent hearing.

Observers could pick them out by the stickers they wore on their sports jackets bearing the message, "Level the playing field.''

Mayors and other city officials also were out in force that day. They weren't wearing stickers, but if they had been, their slogan easily could have been, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.''

Those catchphrases capture the essence of the arguments being put forth in a turf battle between cities and counties that has placed the General Assembly in an uncomfortable position between two warring camps.

At stake is the future of annexation in Georgia, whether the legislature should give counties more control when cities move to grab unincorporated land or leave the current system alone.

"I've heard from every mayor in Georgia, I believe, and every county commission,'' said Rep. Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross, a member of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue. "I can see both sides of the picture.''

Cities have long used annexation as a tool to absorb adjacent unincorporated areas that have developed to the point that their residents want access to the services cities typically provide, including police and fire protection and water and sewer service.

But county officials say the process governing annexation has been skewed since 2000, when the General Assembly enacted a law allowing cities to exercise the power unchecked.

Under the current system, a county that objects to an annexation request can take its case to a mediator. But since the process is nonbinding, a city can ignore a mediator's recommendation against a proposed annexation and pursue it anyway.

"There are no teeth,'' said Matthew Hicks of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "A city can annex land ... and a county can do nothing to stop it.''

Land grab

In a 10-page brochure, the ACCG points to an outbreak of annexations across the state since the law took effect, resulting in cities gobbling up more than 100,000 acres.

Thirteen cities grew in size by 50 percent or more between 2000 and 2005, according to figures compiled by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. In the most extreme example, tiny Talking Rock in Pickens County grew through annexation from just 123 acres to 944 acres, a whopping 669 percent growth rate.

An increasing number of annexations has been accompanied by a growing number of disputes between cities and counties.

Newton County is suing Social Circle over the city's annexation of more than 1,100 acres last fall.

Gwinnett County has locked horns with the cities of Buford and Dacula, with county officials charging recently that an increase in land values brought on by annexations is driving up the costs of right of way acquisition for highway projects.

Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington, is spearheading the drive for annexation reform in the legislature, having been led to the issue by the dispute between his county and Social Circle.

He has introduced a bill into the House that would do away with nonbinding mediation. Instead, counties wishing to challenge an annexation request could pursue binding arbitration.

Holt characterizes the Newton County case as an example of "annexation for revenue,'' which involves cities targeting undeveloped land so they can rezone it for commercial use and reap the tax revenue generated by businesses that locate there.

Cities that use annexation in such an aggressive manner contribute to suburban sprawl and the traffic congestion that goes with it, he said.

"They amount to ... government interference in the market for land,'' he said.

Filling a need

But city officials say they're not doing anything that residents affected by annexation aren't asking them to do.

Ted Baggett, deputy general counsel for the Georgia Municipal Association, said that more than two-thirds of annexations in Georgia occur through the "100 percent method.'' Under that scenario, every property owner in an area signs a petition asking to be annexed into an adjacent city.

"The people filing these obviously believe the cities have something to offer that the counties don't,'' Baggett said.

The GMA also disputes the ACCG's contention that annexations are soaring out of control.

According to a survey of 73 cities by the municipal association, more than 41 percent completed 10 or fewer annexations between 2001 and last year. Only about 23 percent completed 50 or more, the survey found.

"There isn't a problem with annexation,'' said Jim Higdon, the GMA's executive director.

The GMA also has an answer for the annexation causes sprawl argument.

"Cities in Georgia are where 40 percent of the population lives,'' Baggett said. "But they occupy only 6.5 percent of the land area. That's not sprawl.''

But county officials say none of those points defending annexation refutes the common sense notion of creating the level playing field they like to talk about.

Assuming the worst

Newton County Commission Chairman Aaron Varner said his city counterparts seem to have a misplaced fear of giving an independent party the final say over annexation disputes.

"Everybody's assuming if we go to binding arbitration, the county's going to win 100 percent of the time,'' he said. "That's not the case.''

Privately, city officials say they're worried that counties would use binding arbitration as a weapon to drag out annexation requests until cities give up on the effort.

Some lawmakers also oppose binding arbitration, but for a different reason.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, another member of the House subcommittee, questioned the wisdom of giving non-elected arbitrators ultimate power over annexation requests.

"If we cede a political decision to binding arbitration, that's a fundamentally different process,'' she said. "We elect politicians. We don't elect arbitrators.''

If city officials had their way, the issue would just go away. Indeed, when Holt was pushing his bill last year, legislative leaders asked the GMA and ACCG to try to work out their differences between themselves.

"(This is) really about some people trying to get the General Assembly to get involved in the day-to-day issues of governance in Georgia's cities and counties,'' Higdon said.

Floyd said he, too, would like to see the cities and counties resolve their squabble without the legislature having to step in.

But if they can't, he said it would be the General Assembly's obligation to take action.

"It's something that we've got to solve,'' he said.