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Peachtree Corners cityhood issue divides community

Staff Photo: John Bohn A sign posted in a front yard on Medlock Bridge Road in Norcross, urges a no vote on forming a city of Peachtree Corners during a vote November 8th.

Staff Photo: John Bohn A sign posted in a front yard on Medlock Bridge Road in Norcross, urges a no vote on forming a city of Peachtree Corners during a vote November 8th.

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A Peachtree Corners welcome sign greets motorists entering the Paul Duke Parkway. (File Photo)

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Here is a look at the proposed structure of the city of Peachtree Corners.

• Population: With 38,382, according to the 2010 Census, Peachtree Corners would become Gwinnett’s largest city the day it incorporates.

• Borders: The area is surrounded by eight cities: Sandy Springs, Roswell, Johns Creek, Dunwoody, Doraville, Norcross, Duluth and Berkeley Lake

• Form of government: City-manager, council form. The city will have a full-time manager and possibly two other full-time employees, according to UPCCA President Mike Mason, who has lead the pro-city campaign.

• Council: The charter calls for a mayor, who votes in all matters, and six council members. Three council members are elected citywide and three are required to live in districts. Elections are nonpartisan.

• Services: The new city would offer three services: code enforcement, solid waste and planning and zoning.

• Taxes: According to the charter, a millage rate is capped at 1 mill. For the owner of a $300,000 home, that would amount to $120 a year.

• Next steps: If residents approve the charter Nov. 8, council elections will be held in March, and the city would officially incorporate July 1.

PEACHTREE CORNERS -- When Anne Case's husband was transferred to Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, her real estate agent lead them to a Norcross subdivision they fell in love with.

Based on the address, Case assumed she was going to live in the city of Norcross, but she soon discovered the identity of the Peachtree Corners community, the first live-work-play community in Atlanta.

"There was a park right down the street. The neighborhoods were so close, so we thought the kids could ride bikes to friends' houses," Case said, explaining that in her native Ohio, every neighborhood was in a city. "I didn't really understand all that because I always lived in a city, and I never talked about a county like that."

After two decades of feeling like a city dweller in the tight-knit Peachtree Corners area, Case and her neighbors will vote on whether to incorporate Georgia's newest city.

The Nov. 8 referendum is the talk of the town, so to speak.

But while many of the area homeowners love the area, they don't all agree on how to govern it.

"We do not need to have a city to tell us we live in Peachtree Corners. We've already been branded as Peachtree Corners," said Byron Gilbert, one of the leaders of the Peachtree Ballot Committee, which has posted "no city" signs throughout the community. "Why do we need to pay an additional tax?"A community historyForty years ago, developer Paul Duke had a vision for a suburban center, where people lived near their work and knew their neighbors. He built Technology Park and Peachtree Corners grew around it.

The upper-middle class community grew like much of Gwinnett, and as strip centers, restaurants and even an outdoor mall known as The Forum moved in, homeowners banded together to protect themselves. About two dozen homeowners associations joined together to create the United Peachtree Corners Civic Association, which has played a role in zoning issues in the community for two decades.

For years, the volunteers in the UPCCA have done more than just advocate for the community. They raised money from area businesses to pay for landscaping of Peachtree Parkway, which serves as the area "Main Street." They eventually added street toppers and even a "Welcome to Peachtree Corners" sign to help brand the area.

"UPCCA was doing the work of a government," said Wayne Knox, a past UPCCA president. "But there is no one behind us. Volunteers age out or burn out or both."

That's why the organization has pushed for years for some kind of official standing for the community.

The city idea emerged several years ago but it failed in an informal vote. Leaders discussed a "city light" form of government but eventually learned that the state only acknowledges one form of municipal government.

In the meantime, a movement ran afoot just over the county line in both northern Fulton and DeKalb and the first new cities in decades were created just a short drive away.

Now, Peachtree Corners is surrounded by eight municipalities: the new cities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Dunwoody as well as the established abodes of Norcross, Berkeley Lake, Duluth, Doraville and Roswell.

"What goes on around you is not lost on you," Knox said.

But the breaking point for many came when Norcross proposed a legislative annexation that would have taken in Tech Park -- the original commerce center envisioned by Paul Duke.

"It energized us to realize we had to take control of our future," Knox said. "I want people I know to make the decisions."'Happy campers'Gilbert is one of those volunteers who have worked behind the scenes for his community. He spends his free time walking along the parkway and picking up trash.

He does it himself with no prompting from a board or government. So he doesn't see why another layer of government is needed to pick up the duty.

Gilbert was well aware when he bought his house that he was choosing an unincorporated area, and he wants it to stay that way.

"This is not some outrage because we've been an abused area," Gilbert said. "We are happy campers."

Members of the pro-city crowd agree, extolling the county's attention to parks and transportation issues in the area as well as fire and police protection.

In fact, they propose limiting the new government to three services: planning and zoning and code enforcement -- both of which the UPCCA has been involved in for years -- and solid waste collection.

But while leaders say the city will be limited in scope, many neighbors are concerned that a city charter that lists everything from sidewalks to a city jail could lead to another level of beauracracy that could impose on freedoms.

"If you don't have anything in writing, the only thing I can do is speculate," Mark King, a member of the ballot committee, said.Local governanceThe charter, according to attorney Mark Middleton, draws on standards from across the state to allow for flexibility, but it caps the millage rate at 1 mill and limits the services without another referedum.

Middleton has live in Peachtree Corners for years but he was never involved in the UPCCA or local politics until he was asked by state Rep. Tom Rice to help with the charter.

"To me, it's a relatively small cost to a relatively large benefit," he said, pointing to the angst Lawrenceville residents have had over a proposed airport expansion that would be voted on by people who don't live in their community.

"I just believe in the democratic principle that the government that governs closest governs best," he said.

For Robert Byars, who is raising a young daughter in the community, Peachtree Corners is the perfect place for families. He doesn't want that to change due to decisions made 30 minutes away in the county seat of Lawrenceville.

"People are scared of change ... but we know the city will thrive," he said. "At the end of the day, what it comes down to is good government."

Byars plans to run for one of the six council positions that will join the mayor on the City Council, if the cityhood proposition passes.

But Jose Perez, a former state school board member, said he believes the fear is on the pro-city side.

"We're willing to face what comes," he said. "The city is a last-century solution. This is not a solution. ... It's easy to think that leaders are going to be Good Samaritans, but that isn't always the case."Filling the voidWhile much of Peachtree Corners has a well-established identity, the borders proposed for the new city include some other areas that stood apart before -- Mechanicsville and Liberty Heights, which vie for the prestige of being Gwinnett's first subdivisions.

Rolia Pabilona lives off Winters Chapel Road. Half of her neighborhood is within the city limits of Dunwoody, but her address is Doraville.

"We don't feel we are part of anything," she said, adding that few of her neighbors were aware of the impending referendum. "This is a misplaced citizen."

She is against the new government, which, with more than 38,000 people, would be the largest city in Gwinnett the day it is incorporated.

But many leaders are hoping the new boundaries bring validation to Gwinnett's northwest corner.

"This area has no defined borders and no legal standing, so somebody has to fill the void," Knox said. "Someone has to be involved on behalf of the greater community."

Comments

rindech 3 years, 1 month ago

Hidden Agenda or Collateral Damage? As others have noted. Recently, Walmart tried to push through zoning for a new store (average Walmart per store sales of $50 Million per year) to be located on Holcomb Bridge Road between RT 141 and Jimmy Carter in Peachtree Corners. The Gwinnett planning board disagreed and rather than fight Gwinnett County in court, Walmart shelved their plans. Gwinnett County has deep pockets and can last a long time in court and such a court fight may bring undue attention to other Walmarts in the County. The new City of Peachtree Corners is only initially set up for zoning issues and trash collection with a typical budget of $3 Million per year derived 2/3 through property taxes. This is not deep pockets. Do you think that Walmart will try again through this new City? In such a case, the legal fees fighting such a zoning may well exceed the entire City budget, and since zoning will be within the purview of the new City, Gwinnett County may not expend funds to fight such a zoning request. It is not likely, with City lite, that the new managers would have the desire or resources to embark on such a fight. It bears looking into. While there are many reasons for a new City, follow the money. Just sayin.

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