Atlanta, GA

Buckhead, Atlanta’s Wealthiest Community, Fights to Secede From City Due to Violence and Crime

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Critics say the consequences of such a split would be devastating for Atlanta, stripping the city of a huge part of its revenue and triggering racial division between the primarily white community and the rest of Atlanta which would have a sizable black majority.
The upscale Atlanta Buckhead neighborhood seeks to secede from the rest of the city.Chuck Koehler/Wikipedia

With skyrocketing crime rates, residents and business owners in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, one of the most affluent and whitest neighborhoods in the city, want to make the area its own municipality, seeing this as a way of escaping the increasing danger. Some say these are a result of situational factors such as the pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd last summer, that are affecting most large cities with diverse populations.

The Buckhead community has formed a team of volunteer residents from various geographic areas within Buckhead who were serving in leadership position to first research the possibility of becoming independent from Atlanta, then to spearhead the effort. This group, called the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, includes lobbyists, attorneys, legislators and experts in the successful creation of other cities.

The committee contends that: “The City of Atlanta has displayed a pattern of neglect and disrespect towards our community ​which has caused crime to increase at an alarming rate, our infrastructure to crumble, and many residents to flee the area.”

The effort is the most recent example of a growing “cityhood movement” in the South, as municipalities struggle to understand why crime continues to rise even as life begins to return to normal with the pandemic appearing to be winding down.

“The mayor and the city council have been making bad decisions, so at what point does anyone with a brain say, ‘Enough’?” said Bill White, chairman of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee. “If crime is out of control, and you are doing nothing about it, you are finished as a city.”

The Buckhead Exploratory Committee insists that with control of their tax dollars, they will be able to do a better job of protecting themselves with their own police department than the city has, as violent crime, including shootings, carjackings, and assaults, surge. Their website also states that they would be able to gain control of zoning, and ensure the “proper use of tax revenues to improve education, provide city services, and fix our broken infrastructure.” If successful, Buckhead City would be 74 percent white, and its residents would have a median income of $140,000.

Pushback Against the Measure

The Buckhead Exploratory Committee has said that their whole reason for forming a separate city is to right the wrongs of a racist and non-democratic past. They have taken issue with what they see as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s policy interest in redevelopment in Southwest Atlanta, an area where poverty and crime rates are among the highest and home values are among the lowest in the country.

Mayor Bottoms views it differently, stating “This very moment in our nation’s history is being defined by how we as a people finally address the systemic social and economic injustices facing long-neglected communities.” The statement went on to say that the idea of a separate Buckhead City, “clearly loses sight of the need for inclusion and equity. Further, it works against Mayor Bottoms’ vision of One Atlanta — a safe and welcoming city where all neighborhoods, communities, businesses and residents are equipped for success.”

Mere rumors of Buckhead once again seeking independent resulted in significant resistance from influential groups such as the Buckhead Business Association, Buckhead Coalition, Livable Buckhead, and the Buckhead Community Improvement District, as Reporter Newspapers reported.

Still, a poll has shown that over 75 percent of 900 voters supported Buckhead's cityhood efforts.

The Effort is Not New

While some point to relatively recent or current events as being the catalyst for this move, talk of Buckhead becoming independent is far from new. In the 1940’s longtime Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield viewed the growing black voting bloc as a threat and pushed for the incorporation of predominantly white Buckhead, He made his concerns known in a letter sent to a few residents in 1943. In part, it read:

“The most important thing to remember cannot be publicized in the press or made the subject of public speeches,” he wrote. “Our negro population is growing by leaps and bounds. … Our migration is good white, home-owning citizens. With the federal government insisting on political recognition of negroes in local affairs, the time is not far distant when they will become a potent political force in Atlanta.

Hartsfield repeatedly attempted to annex largely white Sandy Springs as well. He was unsuccessful on both counts.

Since that time there have been several other attempts to separate Buckhead from Atlanta so it could become a separate city, with some involving more initiative and support than others. The issues of income, taxes and race were always raised.

In 2008, Atlanta Progressive News reported that a powerful group of Buckhead residents were once more weighing secession, or de-annexing. They believed, as the current group does, that they “pay too much in taxes for too few services and could do a better job with their own city.”

Some pointed out that 40 percent of the revenue for the city of Atlanta, came from Buckhead, and 52 percent of their property taxes went to the Atlanta school system, while they only made up 15 percent of the population. Mary Norwood, a city councilmember and two-time runner-up for Atlanta mayor, said at the time that it was a matter of “service delivery challenges” that had given rise to widespread “discontent” throughout the upscale subdistrict.

Opponents said the battle for Buckhead City was all a matter of race and money. These individuals claimed that the residents of Buckhead weren’t interested in paying for anything that did not benefit their own immediate area. Specifically, some made the accusation that they wanted to avoid paying for anything that benefited low-income or Black people.”

Some believed it could be done, albeit with significant difficulty. They suggested that the legislature could pass a law stating that de-annexation was not local legislation. They held that if that was accomplished, a vote on making Buckhead into an independent city could be forced without the need for a constitutional amendment.

This effort never went through. However, precedence was set for exactly this process in 2018 when Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill into law that would have allowed part of the city of Stockbridge to vote to de-annex itself and become part of a new city, called Eagles Landing.

The ballot failed, but the new law sparked discussion, again, about Buckhead separating itself from the City of Atlanta. The fact that the attempt in Stockbridge had made its way past the governor and into the hands of the people set a legal precedent that excited supporters of Buckhead’s de-annexation. It wasn’t long before residents and business owners took action.

Why it Has been So Much Harder for Buckhead to Separate from Atlanta Compared to Other Nearby Areas

Between 2005 and 2015, eight unincorporated neighborhoods in Georgia’s three largest counties, Fulton, Gwinnett, and DeKalb, voted to form independent cities. They rejected the county’s political leadership and withdrew their financial resources from the county’s tax pool.

Before they incorporated, all of these neighborhoods were paying more money to the county through taxes than they got back in services. Pulling their money out of the county pool was a windfall for these new cities, which were able to reprioritize and increase services to meet the needs of their more homogeneous constituencies without the need to raise taxes.

While Buckhead was originally also unincorporated, it allowed itself to become annexed by Atlanta in 1952. Because Buckhead is a part of incorporated Atlanta it would first require de-annexation before it could incorporate on its own. Given the amount of tax revenue it would pull out of Atlanta’s coffers should Buckhead City become independent, Atlanta is not in favor of this move.

The Process By Which Buckhead Could Become an Independent City

Many of the initial steps necessarily to turn Buckhead into a city that is independent of Atlanta have already been taken. The Buckhead Exploratory Committee has begun the incorporation process on behalf of the citizens of the district.

On April 1, 2021 a bill was introduced by Rep. Todd Jones in the Georgia House of Representatives at which point the review process began. The Georgia General Assembly will be able to vote on this bill during the 2022 legislative session.

If the bill passes the legislative process and the Governor signs it, a referendum date is scheduled. Only residents in the proposed city boundaries will be permitted to vote on Buckhead cityhood. It would take a simple majority for the resolution to pass and for Buckhead to become an independent city, separate from Atlanta.

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