The situation with Walton International buying up massive amounts of undeveloped real estate in Jackson and Barrow counties has created a lot of public confusion.
The firm’s bid (temporarily withdrawn) to have land annexed into the City of Arcade in Jackson County is a perfect example of why state law needs to be changed to limit the municipal powers of small communities.
Many citizens are not very clear about how annexations take place. Some seem to believe that the county government has a role in a city’s annexations.
But the county government’s role is minor. Under the theory of “home rule,” towns in Georgia can annex land without the consent of the county government. County governments can object to the annexation, as the Jackson County Board of Commissioners did regarding the proposed Arcade annexation, but ultimately a town can, in most cases, annex any property it wants to annex.
Although many in the public don’t see it, there is always something of a tug-of-war between county governments and local town or city governments. Historically, municipal governments had more power than county governments in Georgia. Most county governments in the state have their roots as being “road” commissions back when dirt roads needed constant maintenance and grading. County governments also served as the seat of judicial action and collecting taxes, but otherwise didn’t provide the kinds of utility services (electricity, water, sewer, gas) found in many towns.
But those roles shifted in the 1960s and 1970s as county governments got more power to provide services that had traditionally been left to cities to do. A good example of that was the rise of county water systems, which began to compete with local municipal water systems. One reason the City of Winder provides so much water service outside its city limits is because it had the capacity to do that before the Barrow County government got into the water business. (Ditto for Jackson County and its towns, too.)
A current example of this tension between city and county governments is the ongoing dispute between the City of Winder and the Barrow County government over how much the county should roll back its property tax rate for Winder residents since the town provides its own fire services apart from the county’s fire system.
The rise of county government services created a situation where many communities had overlapping services with more than one government offering a particular service. That led to a backlash by the state government a few years ago with HB489 that mandated local governments reduce overlapping services with a service delivery strategy. But local governments are notorious for turf-protecting and that effort has not resolved all the problems.
Developers and land speculators are well aware of this tension between local governments and will often try to play one government against another to get the best deal for a project. That is, in effect, what Walton has attempted to do with the Arcade annexation plan. The firm tried in 2012 to have the county government rezone its 700 acres in South Jackson, but ran into opposition and withdrew that proposal.
Since that time, the company bought up another 300 acres to make a land bridge between the current Arcade city limits and that property and sought to have it all annexed into Arcade to control the rezoning, thereby taking it out of the county government’s hands. The county government has no say over rezonings that take place in a city.
Walton earlier had Arcade annex and rezone another large tract it purchased so it must have felt confident the town would “play ball” with its rezoning plans.
But the clock is running on Walton’s sales pitch. Local officials in several communities in Barrow and Jackson Counties somehow believed that Walton planned to directly develop the land they agreed to rezone. Yet no dirt is being turned on any local project.
Arcade leaders believed that Walton planned to develop the former 4-W Farm property the town annexed in 2012, but no dirt has been turned.
Statham leaders thought Walton planned to develop a large tract that town annexed and rezoned, but no dirt has been turned.
Barrow County leaders thought Walton would develop a tract it rezoned along Hwy. 316, but nothing has been built.
The reality is, Walton is a land speculation company that buys land; syndicates the land; has it rezoned for high-density projects; then sits on it until another buyer comes along. Typically, Walton does not turn dirt on a project.
But the more fundamental issue here is larger than Walton. The real question is, why does Georgia law allow a small town like Arcade to have unlimited power to annex and rezone land?
Arcade has a population of just 745 people, yet it has the same legal municipal authority as the City of Atlanta that has 444,000 people.
Maybe Georgia should have different levels of municipal governments that have different levels of power depending on size. Perhaps small governments like Arcade should not be allowed to willy-nilly annex property without county government or voter approval. After all, the proposed Walton annexation into Arcade would have a profound impact on landowners outside of just the property being annexed; shouldn’t the entire county have a say in that?
City officials would no doubt argue the “home rule” concept and decry any attempt to limit their power. Some would argue that towns should be free to grow as they see fit; what if a county government was weak and didn’t offer a service that a town could offer nearby citizens? Shouldn’t a town have the power to provide those services?
Maybe. But rogue small town officials should not have the power to affect thousands of citizens who don’t live and vote within their jurisdictions.
It’s a sticky issue that is entangled with a number of state level interests on both sides. Proposing limits of any kind on a city government would no doubt be met with fierce opposition by Georgia Municipal Association lobbyists under the Gold Dome.
And yet, there’s something very wrong with the current system that would allow a little town like Arcade to annex and rezone a massive amount of acreage for land speculators.
When there is no clear benefit to the citizens of a town, should a municipal government be allowed to use its power of annexation and rezoning in such a manner?
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.