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Hall County may get creative to keep land, become its own city
County officials seek to fight cities' annexations to shore up tax base
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As local cities take in more and more land through annexations, some Hall County officials are floating unusual ideas to “stop the exodus of unincorporated land” and shore up the county’s tax base.

The most novel concept involves taking a page out of the cities’ playbook. Commissioner Scott Gibbs said he would support turning all of unincorporated Hall into a city and then consolidating it with county government.

Residents of “Hall City” would effectively see no change in how government is operated and how services are delivered. But it would prevent local cities from annexing additional land, Gibbs said.

Voters would have to sign off on such a proposal through a ballot referendum.

Commissioner Jeff Stowe also said he was supportive of the idea.

Municipal annexations have strained county budgets and resources, resulted in confusion about how public safety and other services are delivered, and even thrown a wrench into the county school system, Gibbs and Stowe said.

And some county officials have warned that tax increases or cuts to services could result if such annexations continue.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

State lawmakers formed a study committee this year to review the recent history of annexations and cityhood incorporations.

“There is clear evidence that Georgia cities have grown at an exceptional rate over the past decade,” the committee reports.

There were 11,097 annexations in the state from January 2001 to August 2015, according to the committee.

Gainesville and Hall County officials have butted heads in recent years over the city’s move to annex “island” properties, unincorporated land in Hall County encircled by property within the Gainesville city limits.

Gainesville annexed 115 of these properties, encompassing mostly commercial businesses, in 2013, but left more than 400 residential islands to be served by the county.

City officials said the annexations were made to clear up boundary lines, establish uniform zoning standards along gateway and commercial corridors, and make it easier to ensure local services are provided.

But county officials said the annexations were a revenue grab by the city, targeting the most prosperous commercial tax properties while sticking the county with the responsibility to continue providing public safety and other services to residential areas.

County officials have been unsuccessful in attempts to pass a state law that would require mediation before cities can move forward with certain annexations.

Additionally, the study committee report spotlights the emergence of metro Atlanta cities like Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton, Chattahoochee Hills, Brookhaven, Tucker and Peachtree Corners that were once unincorporated parts of Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Just this month, state lawmakers from Forsyth County scrapped plans to carve out a new city, Sharon Springs, that would have included some 50,000 residents in an area east of Ga. 400, south of Ga. 20, west of the Chattahoochee River and north of the Fulton County line.

FOR AND AGAINST

Local city leaders said forced annexations are uncommon, and that residents and businesses typically seek them out.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said the city must consider just how far it wants to extend its service area and no more annexations are planned.

“The only time we’re going to do any more annexations is if somebody comes to us wanting to get sewer service,” he said.

Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said cities can provide better political representation and certain utility services, among other things, that are attractive to residents and businesses.

Advocates of incorporations believe cities provide residents more control over planning and zoning issues.

“Many times residents want a more responsive local government; that’s why you’ve seen the creation of so many cities in metro Atlanta over the last 10 years,” said Brian Wallace, deputy spokesman for the Georgia Municipal Association. “Annexation isn’t just about the city receiving benefits; it’s more to do about the benefits that property owners and residents receive by coming into the city.”

Wallace added that property values typically increase when annexed into cities, benefitting both city and county governments.

But Gibbs said the county loses significant business licensing and tax revenue from city annexations. He added it affects Hall’s mandate to provide certain services, such as law enforcement, a jail, courts, fire protection, a tax commissioner, road maintenance, recreation and parks, code enforcement and various boards.

Some commissioners also are concerned the school district’s real estate assets could be lost with city annexations, and that such land deals upend students.

Commissioner Billy Powell said he doesn’t think talk of creating “Hall City” will go very far, however.

Another option on the table to prevent future annexations is to provide services property owners may be looking for, particularly in and around Braselton and Buford in South Hall. That area is part of many local municipalities’ long-term growth strategies as new businesses and residents push north from metro Atlanta.

“What (the county has) talked about is running sewer in several areas to prevent people from having to request annexation,” Powell said.

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