City, county head to court

By Justin Reedy

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals will decide if Clayton County will retain more than 134 acres of land that the city of Riverdale tried to annex in 2001.

The Riverdale City Council voted in favor of annexation for the disputed territory along the northern and western edges of the city, but the county opposed the move, arguing that the county could better provide services to that area than Riverdale.

After Senior Judge Stephen Boswell, now a superior court judge in Clayton County, ruled in the county's favor last year, the city appealed the case to the state level. The appellate court will hear the annexation dispute today at 10 a.m. in the State Judicial Building, 40 Capitol Square, Atlanta.

Clayton County opposed the annexation because it would reduce the county's tax base, according to Crandle Bray, chairman of the county commission. The county would be losing property tax revenue under the annexation, Bray said, while still having to maintain fire department and police services at the same level as before.

Riverdale officials maintain that they can take better care of the residents of that area than the county.

"I feel we have an obligation to the citizens of the annexed area," said Riverdale City Manager Billy Beckett. "We're going out and making promises to people about municipal services, and I think we have a duty to deliver on any promises we made."

Many local residents have supported the annexation, city officials say, with upwards of 80 percent of affected residents signing a petition in favor of the move n more than the 60 percent required by law.

One of those local property owners is Chuck Golden, who owns about 23 acres of land along Riverdale Road within the affected area.

"I'm hoping that the annexation goes through," Golden said previously. "I think the city can provide better services. I think the people on the property have a right to decide, and we requested to be annexed into the city."

Local resident Marty Holder lives inside the area that would be annexed into the city, and for him the biggest issue was that city officials were far more approachable and available than their counterparts with Clayton County.

"When I attended one of the town hall meetings about the annexation, what impressed me wasn't the incentives and perks they offered," Holder explained. "It's that the city officials are closer, that they're more accessible. The county just isn't as responsive."

Though the city claims to have had the support of most residents inside the affected area, Clayton County contends in its legal brief filed with the Court of Appeals that those residents weren't presented with all of the facts. The plan the city is required to formulate for serving the annexed area was incomplete, the county argues, and Riverdale is in fact not able to better serve that area with police, fire, emergency and other services.

If the facts presented by Riverdale officials in their case depositions had been presented to the residents and property owners, the county says in its brief, at least eight of those people "either would not have signed the petition or may not have signed the petition."

State law requires that a government has to act in the best interest of an affected area by annexing it, and in his decision Boswell ruled that the city didn't stipulate on the record that the annexation is in the best interest of the affected area. But the city says that burden of proof is on the county to show that the annexation isn't in the best interest of residents.

"It is error to presume that the Riverdale City Council failed to make a best interest determination because a best interest determination was not made on the record," the city's appellate brief said. The city council members knew they were acting in the best interest of both the city and those affected by the annexation when they voted to bring the area into Riverdale, the city argued.

But the county contends that not requiring a municipality to officially act in the best interest of those affected, through an ordinance or resolution, would greatly weaken the state's annexation law.

"If the City is not required to make this determination, and do so on the record, then such a result would remove the accountability and the protections of the annexation statute," the county argued in its brief.