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Fights over property are heating up among local governments. This bill may change the rules
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Residents, many of whom indicated they live in Flowery Branch or unincoporated Hall County, stand during passionate public comments at the Buford Board of Commissioners meeting on Aug. 2. The commission voted to approve annexation and rezoning of 34 acres on McEver Road, making way for a controversial warehouse development. - photo by Conner Evans

Months after Buford city commissioners approved a contentious annexation of a warehouse near homes on McEver Road, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Hawkins would give counties more time to object and increase their ability to work on a resolution before arbitration. 

After the decision last August, some residents and homeowners associations filed a lawsuit against the city that is expected to be heard in Gwinnett Superior Court in the coming months. Residents argued that rezoning the land from agricultural-residential use to light industrial was out of character with current land use plans and would burden surrounding property owners. 

The situation inspired Hall County government and school officials to advocate for changes to state annexation laws, jockeying for more control over these decisions. 

The bill, which unanimously passed the House last week, would mainly make changes to the arbitration process. 

When a developer or property owner requests an annexation, the city must notify its county, and the county may then file an objection. This can then lead to an arbitration process in which a statewide panel of county and city officials and other experts hear both sides and rule based on the intensity of the proposed land use, its effect on infrastructure and whether it differs substantially from the county’s future land use plan. 

Hall County objected to the warehouse annexation in March 2021, but a statewide panel ruled in favor of Buford, allowing the annexation to proceed. The bill would allow the county more time to examine annexation requests before filing an objection (45 days up from 30 days) and would allow both sides to agree to postpone arbitration for up to 180 days to negotiate.

Plus the arbitration panel would have to consider the impact to infrastructure in “areas in the vicinity” of the subject property when making its ruling on the change in land use, potentially giving more consideration to nearby residents. 

“What I see as one of the most important things is it provides more timelines for people to have the chance to study what’s going on, to be informed of what’s going on,” said Hawkins, R-Gainesville.  “(So that) things are not going by in such a rapid fashion that it’s done before they know it. It gives the public a lot more access to this and input.”

If a resolution is made after the arbitration process, the land could not change zonings for two years, the bill states. Previously, it would have to stay put for only one year. 

Annexations can be especially contentious when a city with its own school district annexes land from a county school system, such as what happened in Buford. 

“We’ve got counties with city schools and county school dual systems,” Hawkins said. “I think you’ll see some of those combining their systems. I think that is going to be a necessity for the future. … Until then, we’re still going to have these annexation fights.”

Some local officials say HB 1461 falls short of their needs. 

“That’s the most egregious annexation that I’ve ever seen,” Mark Pettitt, a Hall County school board member, told The Times this week, adding the warehouse decision was a “call to action.” 

The school district passed a resolution that was sent to local legislators late last year with its own proposal. 

To solve the tug-of-war over land between city and county school districts, Hall County Schools asked that the state freeze city school district limits. So, even if a city expanded its boundaries through annexation, the school district boundary would not change.

Both Buford and Gainesville have independent school districts within Hall County. When cities annex land, the property taxes for the land cease to go to Hall County Schools, instead funding the city school district, and it potentially changes boundary lines for where students attend school.

“What we would like to see is that boards of education have a seat at the table,” Pettitt said. “Right now when a municipality wants to annex, the only people who have a seat at the table is the county commission and really, from a tax standpoint and an education standpoint, the folks who are most affected if that municipality has an independent school district … is the county board of education. We have no legal recourse to have a seat at that table or be part of those negotiations or discussions.”

But Buford Commission Chairman Phillip Beard, who also serves as the chairman of the city’s school board, sees the annexation process differently. 

“We can’t just sit here and wait on the world to come to provide the funds to run our school districts,” Beard said. 

Annexations are necessary for growth in the Buford school system, he said, particularly for commercial properties where no students would be added to the system, just more tax revenue. More regulations on zoning could also infringe upon property rights. 

“That’s the American Dream, to own property,” Beard said. “They have property rights, and when you go to limiting their rights you’ve not done them right. … It isn’t the warehouse, it’s the fact that (Hall County is) losing power over territory, and we’re gaining it. The law’s on the property owner’s side in the end.”

HB 1461 would require cities to notify local school districts of annexations, but it would still not give them any legal recourse or representation on arbitration panels. 

Hall County lost its arbitration dispute with Buford, and this is the process some would like to see changed. 

Commissioner Kathy Cooper told The Times that the bill is only “baby steps.” The warehouse annexation was in Cooper’s district, and she wants the county to have much more control when an annexation calls for a new zoning that is out of character with the county’s plan. 

“I was hoping that if (the annexation) was going against a zoning that Hall County would deny then (the city) would not be able to use that zoning for up to two years,” Cooper said. 

She also suggested arbitration panelists should be from near the area of the annexation rather than from across the state. 

As the bill moves through the Senate, another warehouse has been proposed off McEver Road.

 Hall County commissioners voted Thursday to object to the annexation into Buford. 

“I’m not very happy about it,” Cooper said. “It’s still primarily a residential district, so I just have a problem with them changing that to light industrial.” 

Teresa Cantrell owns a women’s shelter on McEver which would sit between the two warehouses, if approved. 

“It does definitely create an island of our little 5-acre parcel,” Cantrell said. “We literally have Buford on both sides. We are an island, and they’re not supposed to create islands.”