Several hundred residents turned out for the first public meeting of the Lakeside City Alliance on Wednesday night, and the vast majority said they supported a new movement that might lead to the newest municipality in northern DeKalb County as early as fall 2014.
When the alliance's head, Northlake resident Mary Kay Woodworth, asked the packed Lakeside High School auditorium whether it supported the exploration of a new city of Lakeside, most of the audience raised their hands. Only a small group said they were opposed to the idea.
"Everything we're doing tonight, it's about a starting point," Woodworth said. "We present this to you with an open mind."
The alliance announced its existence only a week ago, and Woodworth said the group was started by her and a "few neighbors," including former state Rep. Kevin Levitas, who headed a different recent cityhood effort in Oak Grove. Woodworth is executive director of the Georgia Urban Agriculture Council and a registered lobbyist.
But after releasing a proposed city boundary that would include most of the Lakeside High area and north to I-285 and much of the commercial district in west Tucker across the perimeter highway, the group has rapidly moved to the forefront of various cityhood movements and discussions in the larger North Druid Hills-Briarcliff area.
Any city in Georgia must offer at least three services, and the alliance proposed the following for a city of Lakeside on Wednesday: public safety, zoning and enforcement and parks and recreation. Woodworth said the alliance chose those three because they were most frequently mentioned by residents as areas that could be better governed locally rather than by DeKalb County.
The goal is to design a city that would not raise residents' taxes beyond what they currently pay the county, Woodworth said. And while displeasure with inefficiency in county government has spawned most cityhood chatter in this area, Woodworth reminded the audience a new city would in no way address the county's beleagured school system. New city school districts remain prohibited under the state's constitution, and changing that is an uphill, uncertain battle, she said.
But, Woodworth added, "no city school system could be created if a city is not formed. "People are complaining, so let's see what we can do about that."
Many details about the city remain unanswered, and Levitas said the meeting was about recruiting residents to work with the alliance. Though residents did not speak at the meeting, Woodworth did take written questions from the audience, most of which dealt with how the proposed boundary was drawn and why certain neighborhoods or areas were included or excluded.
Several asked why the Sagamore Hills and Leafmore communities were excluded from the proposed city. Those communities have been holding their own cityhood discussions, Woodworth said, and the alliance did not want to interfere. But she said the group was open to extending the boundary of the proposed city to any areas interested. Another resident suggested including the North Druid Hills and Toco Hill commercial areas.
"We can certainly look at this," Woodworth said. "Something to discuss."
Since the path to cityhood is a roughly two-year effort, the alliance said it would like to persuade legislators to submit a "placeholder" bill for the new city by the end of this year's session. That would allow the legislature to consider it next year, and, if successful, residents would be able to vote on it in the fall of 2014, Woodworth said. That process would also include a state-mandated feasibility study by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government that costs about $30,000 – money that would need to be raised from prospective city residents, Levitas said.
"We cannot do this alone," he said. "And we need your money. Anything you can give, we need... We need your time. We need your expertise... It's got to be a grassroots movement that starts with you."
Several residents asked why the boundary included strictly commercial districts such as the Century Center area off Clairmont Road and west Tucker across I-285. Any city needs a proper balance of commercial and residential property, Woodworth said, or the city will be funded solely on the backs of its residents. "The boundaries are created to get that mix," Levitas said.
Woodworth also said the alliance doesn't see I-85 or I-285 as obvious demarcation lines.
But the alliance must also contend with a county-led effort to squash new cities or large annexations of commercial in DeKalb County. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, would require new cities to conduct an study on their financial impact to the county and nearby cities. County government leaders have complained for years about the financial drain caused by new incorporations, including Dunwoody and Brookhaven.
Alliance organizers said local control over governance is a primary reason for pursuing cityhood. But Woodworth also said the alliance is not advocating cityhood, only studying the issue. "You may not believe that, and that's your preogative," she said. "None of us have an agenda."
The alliance will hold future meetings though no date was settled Wednesday night.