A small tract of land along College Avenue came one big step closer to being annexed by Decatur and Avondale Estates this month.
The DeKalb County delegation of state House members – a group of 20 legislators – granted approval on Feb. 1 to state Sen. Stephanie Benfield to begin gathering signatures to push the annexation proposal to a vote before the General Assembly.
The proposal would essentially bring Decatur’s borders east and Avondale Estates’ borders west along the small stretch of commercial property, making Sam’s Crossing the new border. Decatur would absorb about 10 businesses, and Avondale Estates would take 22. Officials from both cities and Benfield have expressed frustration with the corridor’s industrial look, and Avondale Estates officials said several eyesore businesses could harm their efforts to redevelop their downtown area.
A hearing before the delegation attracted a large group of supporters and protestors, top county officials among them, including CEO Burrell Ellis. While about 13 local business representatives simply expressed their dissatisfaction with being forcibly annexed, county officials said they worried the annexation effort would spark a chain of similar land grabs countywide, further depleting the county’s tax base.
The city of Dunwoody’s decision to incorporate in 2008 could cost the county up to $18 million per year, according to recent projections, and county officials are keen to stanch any future revenue bleeding.
“We need to go back to the drawing board and work together,” county Commissioner Lee May told local representatives.
May and Commissioner Kathie Gannon asked delegation members to hold off on their annexation bill and work with the county to create a comprehensive development plan that would allow both parties to get what they want. The area has been considered for annexation multiple times – as recently as last year – and Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said he believed the county has had enough time to clean up the corridor, which Benfield called “blighted.”
“After all these years… where has the county been? I’ve heard this same argument before in another part of the county,” he said about Dunwoody to applause from Avondale Estates residents.
Gannon conceded that the annexation, which covers .28 miles of land, would not seriously harm the county financially. The annexation could cost the county about $20,000, Commissioner Jeff Rader said. But the county’s residential property taxes do not cover the cost of offering county services, and the county needs to hold on to as much commercial property as it can because it’s taxed at a higher rate, Gannon said.
The county is also, essentially, at local municipalities’ mercy when they consider annexations through local legislator delegations, which do not require a vote from residents.
“The cities have the upper hand,” she said. “They don’t necessarily have to come to the table.”
Millar said he didn’t consider the loss significant. “For $20,000, if the services can be improved to these citizens, I’m trying to figure out why we’re still here,” he said.
Ellis said his administration is reinvestigating the possibility of incorporating all of unincorporated DeKalb County, which could net the county about $31 million in revenue, according to a 2006 study the county commissioned. That amount would plug the county’s projected revenue shortfall next year, he said.
Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said he didn’t think the College Avenue annexation should be a serious concern for the county.
“There’s a certain amount of savings that they should pick up,” he said. “Though I guess you could question whether they’re doing anything there now.”
Several businesses along the corridor have supported the annexation proposal because they want surrounding businesses to look better, which they believe would improve the value of their own businesses, Avondale Estates Mayor Ed Rieker said.
But a group of business owners disagreed. Joseph Cargiulo said he owns 11 parcels that could be annexed. County development guidelines allow for more development than Avondale Estates’ guidelines, meaning he would less leeway to develop his land he said.
“That would devalue my property, not increase the property,” he said. He added that the delegation was wrong to force businesses into an annexation. “You don’t just go take something from somebody,” he said.
When asked why he had not improved the appearance of some of his businesses over the last 10 years (when Benfield began the annexation effort in earnest), Cargiulo said it was never required of him. He has tenants on all his parcels, he said.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “I have zero vacancies. Avondale has 10.”
Other business owners said they’re struggling through the poor economy and being forced to adopt new beautification standards from Decatur or Avondale Estates could sink their companies.
Cargiulo’s neice, Tonia Cagle, said she disagreed with the delegation’s move forward. “I’ve watched my uncle work his tail off for the past 37 years,” she said. “He’s a self-made man.”
Benfield said this month she’s confident she can get the 10 signatures to send the annexation proposal to the House floor for a vote. If that were to happen, it would likely pass as House members tend to support local bills that local delegations push to the floor.
On Saturday evening, Jan. 30, the marquee sign for Finders Keepers Furniture, located on East College Avenue within the area being considered for annexation, was vandalized. The damaged portion of the sign reads ANNEXATION YES. Owner Bonnie Kallenberg supports the annexation efforts and suspects that the vandalism is an effort at intimidation or intentional destruction of property as a show of protest against her support. “I’m the only person on our block that supports the annexation.” Kallenberg said, “This gateway into the community in disrepair affects all of the Avondale businesses.”