A Little House on the Road: Unlocking Emory’s Door to Annexation
By RAMSEY BADEN | July 13, 2017
1644 Briarcliff Road is the address of a modest cottage nestled in the quiet woods. It is only 1,240 square feet, but this unassuming house is one of the most important pieces of property owned by Emory University.
Emory University has sought annexation by the city of Atlanta for many years. The university’s 630-acre campus currently resides in DeKalb County, but events such as the purchase of the Briarcliff cottage have greatly accelerated its plans to become part of the city. The Briarcliff cottage is key to understanding how and why Emory is pursuing annexation, as well as its effects on everyone involved.
According to the university itself, the annexation is in keeping with Emory’s existing commitments and positions. In an emailed statement to Emory affiliates, Emory President Claire E. Sterk said that the move would “complement the university’s commitment to local – and thereby —global engagement, while continuing to contribute to both jurisdictions.” She also highlighted Emory’s ties to Atlantan institutions such as “Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, the Morehouse School of Medicine, [and] Grady Memorial Hospital.” Emory is currently the second-largest employer in metropolitan Atlanta, meaning that annexation would allow it to further integrate its workforce with that of the city. Students would benefit from closer ties to the city as well, since the university would have access to the much larger pool of public resources that Atlanta has to offer.
A prime example is MARTA, Atlanta’s primary public transit system, which includes aboveground and underground metro railways and a large bus network. The expansion of MARTA to include access to Emory’s Clifton corridor has been discussed for years, and is likely a major driving force behind Emory’s petition. A recently-approved increase in Atlanta’s sales tax means that MARTA will raise $2.5 billion over the next 40 years. The annexation of Emory would accelerate plans to build a MARTA station connecting the Clifton corridor to the bulk of Atlanta, providing Emory’s students and employees with a more accessible means of transportation to and from the city.
In late 2016, Emory purchased the Briarcliff cottage for $345,000. In effect, Emory now shares a border with the city of Atlanta. Since the cottage’s 72-foot yard is longer than the 50 feet required by Georgia law (O.C.G.A. Title 36, Chapter 36), Emory can file what is known as a “100 percent” petition, removing the necessity of a state vote for its approval. The cottage is the only physical point where Emory’s property touches Atlanta’s city limits.
On Jun. 27, 2017, Emory University announced that it had formally submitted this petition. According to President Sterk, the “next step in the process includes the City’s regular public meeting process for annexations.” In addition, Sterk says that “it is expected that the annexation will be effective in the fall of this year.”
However, Emory is not the only party affected by its annexation. Schools in the DeKalb district have been some of the most vocal protestors against such petitions. Theoretically, Emory’s annexation could trigger a movement of neighborhoods and businesses from DeKalb to Atlanta. This would transfer taxable property and siphon funds away from the district’s students. The DeKalb County schools’ superintendent Michael Thurmond has even expressed a desire to set aside $2.5 million to fight any possible proposal that would seek to annex the district’s three schools. It is worth noting that Emory is a tax-exempt educational institution, and as such it is mostly a non-entity under DeKalb County’s tax jurisdiction as it stands. Therefore, the concerns of the DeKalb school district have less to do with Emory itself and more to do with the entities that would follow its lead.
The purchase of the Briarcliff cottage has also been protested out of a belief that the university is bending the law to fit its needs. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Jon Fidler, a resident of Lindmoor Woods (a subdivision near Decatur), who claimed that the "notion of possibly annexing hundreds of acres, based on a stretch of land that’s literally 72 feet wide, isn’t against the letter of the law but is against the intent of the law.” This has plenty of implications. How far can an institution go to attain annexation? Is it legal for corporations, churches, and other establishments to use the same methods as Emory to attain annexation?
The effects of Emory’s annexation extend beyond DeKalb County. Some strategists believe that the annexation of two currently-unincorporated zones (Druid Hills and Sandtown) could decide the next mayoral election due to expected demographic changes. Perhaps most importantly, the annexation of a university would impact its students: the 2017 sales tax in Atlanta sits at 8.9% compared to the current 7% sales tax of DeKalb County. It is unclear whether this would constitute a meaningful change, but it could directly impact businesses and prices for students on Emory’s campus. Emory is not the only entity in DeKalb that is seeking to become a part of Atlanta. On June 27th, the CDC announced that it had also filed a 100 percent annexation petition, joining Emory. Other businesses, streets, and neighborhoods are likely to follow.
It seems that a 630-acre campus will be able to fit through 72 feet of backyard after all. The little cottage on Briarcliff Road has become Emory’s doorway to Atlanta.