By Joel Hall
This week, College Park City Manager William Johnson approached the Clayton County Board of Commissioners with a proposal to annex 780 acres of the northern part of the county into the city over the course of five years.
While College Park officials claimed annexation would provide a way for both governments to work together toward developing the largely undeveloped area, Clayton County officials balked at the proposal, labeling the move a swipe at the county's prime real estate.
Johnson made the proposal during Tuesday night's county work session. The area in question lies in the vicinity of North Clayton middle and high schools, north of the Cherry Hill subdivision and south of I-285, and it contains mostly commercial retail space and undeveloped land.
In his presentation, Johnson suggested annexing the area in five portions, one a year, for five years. Johnson said the move "would benefit both College Park and Clayton County.
"To me, the benefit is that you would have both locales working to develop that corridor," said Johnson. "From our perspective, it was an opportunity for us to further our relationship with Clayton County. That was why we did it in a five-year, phase plan."
Clayton County officials disagreed. "The board's overall feeling is that it is unacceptable," said Chairman Eldrin Bell. "He sold it on the benefit that it would have for College Park. Nothing that they put forward will benefit the people of Clayton County."
District 3 Commissioner Wole Ralph said the benefits were one-sided. "It didn't seem to benefit the county in any real way," said Ralph. "The properties that College Park wanted to incorporate were mostly commercial businesses. He tried to sell it as a positive for the economic development to the area ... but the county wouldn't receive the business licenses."
Ralph added that the move would drain the county's fire millage, while at the same time, increasing the coverage area College Park public safety officials would be responsible for.
"College Park has only 14 firefighters," on call at any given time, compared to Clayton County Fire Department's minimum staffing of 79 firefighters, said Ralph. "If they get a two-alarm or a three-alarm fire, they can't support that. It just makes it harder to provide services to that area, because it isolates some of the infrastructure that we've put out there. It would be a significant loss of tax revenue for the county and the county would be responsible for providing most of the services to that area," he said.
Jack Longino, three-term mayor of College Park, said he wasn't at the Tuesday meeting and wasn't adequately briefed on the proposal, but said he is in favor of the annexation.
"We lost half of our city to Hartsfield Jackson [International Airport]," said Longino. "We, of all cities, should be doing some annexation."
Longino argued that the annexation would not hurt the county, because the land would still lie in the county and the county could collect property taxes.
"They don't lose their tax base," he said. "They still get the property tax, they just don't get the millage rate ... and they no longer have to give services. If there is a fire call down there, they don't answer it, we do ... if there is a police call, they don't answer it, we do."
Longino added that College Park was "without a doubt" ready to handle the annexation and would consider hiring more fire fighters, if necessary.
Bell said he believes the city of College Park is biting off more than it can chew. "In a nutshell, College Park would not be equipped to handle the fire service needs of the area," he said.
"They want to annex an area that they are not prepared to service," said Clayton County Fire Chief, Alex Cohilas. He added that annexation would be a "huge blow to the Clayton County fire budget" and "would virtually gut [District 2] Commissioner [Virginia] Gray's entire district."
Cohilas said that with annexation, the county would be giving away an area of prime real estate, key to Clayton's future economic development.
"College Park had no interest in developing that area," when the northern part of the county was in decline due to airport expansion. "Now that it has become prime commercial real estate for commercial redevelopment ... they're interested.
"That is going to be the most vital area to Clayton County's redevelopment, because of it's proximity to the Atlanta airport," Cohilas continued. "That's where we need to put our mixed, work-live-play environments. My opinion is that the Board of Commissioners should not cooperate with the city, whatsoever, in regards to annexation. It's a bad deal all the way around."
Johnson suggested that College Park could go forward with the annexation without the county's approval, by using the 100 percent method -- in which 100 percent of the owners of properties bordering the city line sign an annexation petition. Another method he suggested is the 60 percent method, in which 60 percent of registered voters and 60 percent of land owners sign a petition approving annexation.
If the 100 percent method alone were successful, College Park could still get 296 acres of Clayton County land, about half of which is still undeveloped, according to Johnson.
"We don't necessarily want to go that route," Johnson said. "We were not seeking approval [Tuesday] night, we were seeking feedback. We want to be good neighbors and good partners.
"We'll go back and do our homework and look at the comments that were made ... and see where we land."