Court to decide annexation case

By Justin Reedy

ATLANTA n The decision on whether the city of Riverdale will be allowed to annex 134 acres of unincorporated Clayton County is now in the hands of the state Court of Appeals.

On Tuesday attorneys for the city and the county argued before the court the case that dates back to the Riverdale City Council's 2001 vote to bring land on the northern and western edges of the city into its jurisdiction.

The county opposed the annexation attempt in court, arguing that it 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. A decision is expected in the next few months.

City officials say that most people in the area up for annexation were supportive of the move, citing that 80 percent of the residents and property owners in that area signed a petition in favor of the measure. In addition, the city argued, no one opposed the annexation at the public hearing held on the matter.

Though the city claims to have had the support of most residents inside the affected area, Jack Hancock, the attorney representing Clayton County, argued Tuesday that those residents weren't presented with all of the facts.

"I would submit that one reason there was no opposition was that the information given (to affected residents) was completely and totally inaccurate," Hancock told the three-judge panel.

Riverdale officials later testified in depositions that the city could have trouble providing police and fire services for the area with the city's current staff, Hancock argued, and if people had been told that they may not have supported annexation.

Riverdale Fire Chief Billy Hayes testified previously that the city wouldn't be able to respond to more than one fully involved house fire inside the city on its own, Hancock told the judges. Eight local residents have signed affidavits saying they would not or may not have signed the petition if they had known that, Hancock said, and one city council member even said he would have voted against the measure.

But Frank Jenkins, the attorney representing Riverdale, argued that the city's fire department would not be able to respond to two or more house fires in the current city limits, not just because of the annexation. Since the state's annexation statute only requires that an annexed area receive the same level of service as the original municipal area, Jenkins said, the city satisfied the legal requirements for annexation.

Jenkins also argued that Boswell's decision held the city to too strict of a standard for annexation, citing cases at the appellate court and state Supreme Court levels in which the courts held that cities should be given some leeway in meeting the standards of the annexation statute. In fact, he argued, the law itself is worded to require "substantial" compliance of its requirements, rather than "strict" compliance.

"The appellate courts have said over and over again that you should follow a liberal policy when reviewing annexation cases," Jenkins said. "Not only that, but the statute on annexation reinforces that position."

Because of that liberal policy suggested by the court in previous annexation cases, Jenkins said, the county's arguments that the city didn't properly formulate a plan for serving the annexed area aren't valid.

The county stated in its brief filed with the appellate court that the city failed to live up to the annexation statute's requirements because it never documented on the record that the annexation was in the best interest of the affected area.

Jenkins argued that the city council's vote to annex the area n a local legislative action n is presumed under the law to be done in the best interest of those affected. But Hancock countered that the city is still required to show its intent, which he says was only done after the county challenged the annexation.

"What they're telling the court is well, we didn't (document that we were acting in the area's best interest) because we didn't have to do it," said Hancock, who added that part of the annexation statute requires records of a proposed annexation be submitted to the court during a challenge.