As blue wave washes over Cobb, push to carve out new cities gains steam

By: - April 23, 2021 4:45 am

From left, state Reps. Ed Setzler, Ginny Ehrhart and Sen. Brandon Beach discuss proposed new cities this week at a meeting of the Cobb County Young Republicans at Schoolhouse Brewery in Marietta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

This story was updated at 11 a.m. on April 23 to include comments from Cobb County Commission Chair Lisa Cupid.

When DeAnna Harris was looking for a new Cobb County home, she wanted someplace private, but not too far from amenities. She said she struck gold when she found a place in west Cobb.

“I live almost like, two feet away from an alpaca farm,” said Harris, president of Cobb County Young Republicans. “On the other end of my street, there’s about seven horses. I like that environment. I’m comfortable with it. That’s the reason why I moved over there. I actually relocated from the South Cobb area in Smyrna, where there’s a lot more higher density homes and apartments in that area, and that was part of the reason, to get away from all that.”

Harris and other west Cobb residents say they are concerned that the county commission, which recently flipped to Democratic control for the first time in decades, will allow more dense development, destroying their more rural way of life.

She supports the creation of the city of Lost Mountain, which could become one of Georgia’s newest cities, if lawmakers and voters agree.

Cobb County appears poised to become the epicenter of arguments over cityhood in the state Legislature next year, with bills filed to create cities in Lost Mountain, east Cobb and two in south Cobb: Mableton and Vinings. In Fulton County, some in Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead community are also working to carve out their own city, citing spikes in crime.

Traditionally conservative Cobb County has been creeping leftward for years as its population swells with younger and more diverse residents. The changes culminated in last November’s election, which saw the ouster of the county’s longtime sheriff, a staunch conservative, a district attorney handpicked by Gov. Brian Kemp and a county commission chair who ran as a fiscal conservative. Commission Chair Lisa Cupid, the county’s first Black and first female chair, now leads an all-female, majority Black, majority Democrat board.

Cupid said it’s not her role to interfere with the cityhood pushes either way, but she pushed back against the idea that a Democratic board means denser development in Republican areas, arguing that commissioners traditionally defer to the will of the local representative in zoning decisions.

She said the county’s large population means it can pay less for services, and denizens of new cities may find they are paying more in taxes.

“I think one of the impediments to Cobb County is that we have been responsive to citizens of these areas as far as not increasing our tax digest, which has limited our county in being as responsive as they would like it to be, considering the growth of the county,” she said. “Adding more decision makers is not necessarily equated to adding more people who can get the work done. And I think there are greater economies of scale in supporting the departments that can respond to the issues that citizens have than in adding a whole new layer of government.”

Cityhood proponents will have a tough row to hoe now that they have sponsors in the Legislature, starting a two-year review process. They will need to obtain a feasibility study from one of three accredited institutions at the University of Georgia, Georgia State University or Georgia Tech, at a cost of about $30,000.

During the 2022 legislative session, bills to incorporate the new city can come to a vote. If they pass the state House and Senate and the governor signs off, residents of the proposed cities will have the final say with a vote.

“The proposals have to make a case to those residents that, look, you’re going to be better off with a city, and in a lot of cases, actually in most cases, that’s an argument that’s increasingly hard to make,” said Kerwin Swint, Director of the School of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University. “That’s not to say that they can’t be successful, I just think a lot of residents are skeptical.”

West and East Cobb

State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, a west Cobb Republican whose district includes part of the proposed city of Lost Mountain, said she would have been skeptical not too long ago.

“If you had told me even a year ago, that I would be pushing for the concept of cityhood, I would have told you you were crazy,” she said at a meeting of the Cobb County Young Republicans Wednesday. “And I probably would have said that because at that time, I would have viewed it as another layer of government, something I had been diametrically opposed to probably most of my life.”

But much has changed in the last year, Ehrhart said.

“For West Cobb in this particular situation, the decisions that are being made that affect the the lives and the livelihoods of businesses and the families and the schools of West Cobb are being made at the county level, but we view this as an opportunity to bring this back down to a local level,” she said.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, another west Cobb Republican whose district would include part of the proposed city, said local control is necessary to protect the community’s character.

“Why is it a bad thing to be able to buy a 3,000 square foot house on a two-acre lot, 39 minutes from downtown Atlanta, a global city, for $500,000, $450,000?” he said. “It’s not a bad thing, it’s such a beautiful thing that we are unique among global cities in having that kind of opportunity.”

If Lost Mountain becomes a city, its population of about 70,000 people will rival Albany, Georgia’s 12th most populated city, Setzler said.

Lost Mountain’s supporters expect their feasibility study from UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government will be completed by the summer, Ehrhart said. After that, the study will be posted on the web for lawmakers and residents to study before the matter comes to a vote.

“There will be no unanswered questions about what the cost of the city will be, certainly not in west Cobb,” Ehrhart said.

A proposed city needs to take over at least three services from the county government. Lost Mountain’s supporters are proposing to take over what they call the three least expensive, planning and zoning, trash collection and code enforcement, creating what they call a “city-lite.”

Other services, including police, fire and road maintenance would remain under the control of the county.

Though suburban east Cobb is more built out than west Cobb, both east and west Cobbers tend to prefer conservative candidates, with much of the growing support for Democrats coming from south Cobb.

East Cobb Republican state Rep. Matt Dollar this year revived an effort to carve a city out of the eastern part of the county. A previous effort launched in 2019 was dropped after some residents balked at the results of a feasibility study at town hall meetings.

Supporters are trying to raise money for a new feasibility study for a city-lite plan which includes a smaller map and fewer services for the fledgling city to provide. Under the plan, the city would provide for planning and zoning, parks and recreation and code enforcement.

Now, the four members of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners represent nearly 800,000 people, Dollar said at a meeting of the East Cobb Cityhood Committee last week. If East Cobb becomes a city, six city council members will each represent about 9,000 residents.

“For every 200,000 of you and me, we have one representative on the county commission,” he said. “What this proposes to do is to bring that number down to 9,000, to have somebody who is most likely going to be your neighbor who is accountable to you on what the community looks like.”

Mableton, Vinings and Buckhead

Some Democrats are calling the push for cityhood sour grapes. South Cobb Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen compared the city-lite plans to glorified homeowners associations and said the proposals are reactions to demographic and electoral changes that are ushering more Cobb Democrats into elected positions.

“I think it’s almost like the reaction with the elections bill,” Allen said, referring to the controversial GOP-backed changes to state election law following the 2020 elections. “Things didn’t turn out the way you liked it, so you’re just going to try to change the rules, and I’m really hopeful cooler heads will prevail.”

Carving out a new city can reduce revenue for the surrounding county, creating challenges for those left on the outside, Swint said, but politics always plays into incorporating new cities. Sandy Springs, which had been lobbying to become its own city for years, was unsuccessful until 2005, after Republicans took over the state Legislature.

“It’s partially been a partisan movement, although in recent years, there have been new cities in more Democratic Party areas,” Swint said.

That includes Georgia’s newest city, South Fulton, which incorporated in 2017.

Residents of two unincorporated areas in south Cobb are trying to create their own cities, and one of those is part of the county’s growing Democratic base. Mableton is slightly different from the other proposed cities — backers there are seeking more development and government programs rather than less. 

Some area residents have long complained of new businesses and developments coming to whiter and more affluent areas of the county, and cityhood supporters say incorporating would allow more local control of programs and developments to benefit residents.

Cupid, who represented south Cobb on the board of commissioners before she was elected chair, said she gets it.

“I can understand the impetus for them wanting to consider cityhood, but I also see that things have changed,” she said. “For the first time in a long time, they do have a majority of people on the board who are sensitive to their interests, and while I would like to think that would make them less amenable to cityhood, I’m sure there are a number of factors they’re considering, including the fact that other cities are trying to get under way, so they may perceive this as their moment.”

One of metro Atlanta’s largest unincorporated areas, Mableton became a city in 1912 but returned to the county four years later. South Cobb state Rep. Erica Thomas filed a bill last month to let voters decide whether to incorporate once more.

A Mableton cityhood measure was introduced in 2019, and supporters commissioned a feasibility study, which found the city would have an annual surplus of $3.2 million, but support in the legislature waned as the pandemic interrupted the legislative session.

Cobb Republican Rep. John Carson has filed a bill to create the city of Vinings. Proponents say they have raised over $13,000 of the $30,000 necessary to sponsor a feasibility study. They are pushing for the same type of city-lite model as in east and west Cobb, with a limited government unable to raise taxes, float bonds or erect municipal buildings. Framers want the city to control planning and zoning, code enforcement and parks and recreation.

Just across the Chattahoochee from Vinings, in Fulton County, some Buckhead residents are hoping to secede from Atlanta.

Speaking to the Cobb Young Republicans Wednesday, Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, said he supports their efforts.

“I live in North Fulton, I’m part of the Fulton delegation, I do not live in Buckhead, but I do spend three months out of the year down there and I can tell you, from my nine years down there, this session for the first time was insane,” he said. “Support for the city of Buckhead comes down to one thing, crime. Crime, crime, crime. The lack of police protection, a lack of emphasis from Mayor (Keisha Lance) Bottoms on really having law enforcement in Buckhead or the city of Atlanta.”

Beach spoke about going out for dinner during the legislative session only to return and find some of his colleagues’ cars had been broken into. 

House Speaker David Ralston shared similar stories last month when he announced the creation of a committee to determine whether state intervention may be necessary to fight rising crime levels in Atlanta.

Georgia State University will conduct a feasibility study for Buckhead, Beach said.

Rep. Allen said he signed on to both the Vinings and Mableton bills because residents deserve to look at a study and make their own decision, but he hopes they will decide to stick with the county.

“I think all of them should take a pause and kind of just let things play out,” he said. “I think those that are concerned about the change of county government will find that a lot of their fears will be unfounded, and I think that in Mableton, where it’s a separate issue, now they have a lot more support.”

“Hopefully, they’ll see things improve,” he added. “Everything right now just kind of feels reactionary. I think they’ll go through their feasibility studies, they’ll present that information, but my hope is that once all that is presented and the community gets to take a look at it, that calmer and cooler heads will prevail.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.