January 3, 2018

Growing and prosperous Georgia cities create a growing and prosperous Georgia. Although cities comprise only 8.9% of Georgia’s land area, approximately 43% of the state’s population lives in cities. And that number is growing because Georgia’s cities provide value and responsive local government to residents and businesses alike. Georgia cities are home to 64.7% of the commercial property, 49% of the industrial property and 57.9% of all tax-exempt property in the state. Despite the fact that over half of all tax-exempt property in the state is located within cities, the property in cities still generates greater taxing power per square mile than property in unincorporated areas (2016 Georgia Department of Revenue Tax Digest Consolidated Summary). An even more remarkable statistic is that the economies of Georgia’s cities generate 89% of the state’s gross domestic product (calculated based on 2016 data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis).

State law recognizes the importance of growing cities to the economic health of Georgia by stating that “municipal corporations are created for the purpose of providing local governmental services and for ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of persons and the protection of property in areas being used primarily for residential, commercial, industrial and institutional purposes” (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-51(1)). Because one reason cities exist is to provide urban services to densely populated or developing areas, it follows that cities be allowed to grow to accommodate more intense development as well as property owners and citizens that wish to enjoy the benefits of city services. Cities also provide a unique sense of place and community identity.

Annexation is typically driven by property owners and citizens living in unincorporated areas that wish to have their property or residence added to a neighboring city’s jurisdiction and thus receive municipal services and other benefits of being in the city limits. Although cities may provide some services outside of their territorial limits, areas added to a city through annexation receive the benefit of all applicable municipal services.

While some annexations occur because an adjacent city provides services not available in the unincorporated area, in many instances property owners desire annexation because a city can provide a heightened or improved level of service. For example, many city residents enjoy better ISO ratings and consequently lower homeowner’s insurance rates because of the enhanced response times offered by a municipal fire department. Some residents wish to be served by a municipal police department that may have a better officer to resident ratio, smaller patrolling area, and better response times.

In addition to enhanced services, many residents wish to take advantage of the efforts that cities have made to create more livable communities. Initiatives in many cities promote active downtowns. Infrastructure like sidewalks and parks allow residents to enjoy a higher quality of life. As a result of these initiatives and heightened service levels, annexation often results in raising the annexed property’s value.

Finally, many residents enjoy having access to a smaller and more responsive local government. Especially in the metro Atlanta area, being able to rely on a mayor and council that only represent a few thousand people allows for decision-making that respects and is responsive to the needs of individual neighborhoods.

Methods of Annexation

There are five methods of annexation. For additional details on annexation, the full text of Georgia’s annexation statutes, case summaries, checklists and other materials on annexation, please see GMA’s Growing Cities, Growing Georgia: A Guide to Georgia’s Annexation Law.

100% Method
The 100% method allows property owners of all the land in an area to seek to have their property annexed into an adjacent city by signing a petition (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-20 et seq.). It is up to the city council to determine whether to annex the property or not. However, counties have the power to prevent the expansion of a city into their county for the first time using the 100% method (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-23(b)).

Land can also be deannexed from a city in response to a petition signed by all of the owners of the land seeking deannexation. It is prohibited for such a deannexation to create an unincorporated island. The decision whether to deannex an area is treated the same as a decision to annex by the 100% method and left to the discretion of the municipal governing authority.

60% Method
This method allows for petitioners representing owners of at least 60% of the property in the area to be annexed plus at least 60% of the resident electors in the area to be annexed to sign a petition to have their property annexed into an adjacent city. This method is available to cities with populations over 200 persons. The municipality is required to prepare a plan for servicing an area to be annexed and to hold a public hearing before adopting an ordinance annexing the area covered by the petition (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-30 et seq.; City of Riverdale v. Clayton County, 263 Ga.App. 672, 588 S.E.2d 845 (2003)). 

Resolution and Referendum
The resolution and referendum method provides for an election to be held in an area to determine if the area should be annexed. This method requires an agreement between the city and the county providing services in the area and a referendum of voters residing in the area to be annexed (O.C.G.A. §§ 36-36-57, -58; O.C.G.A. § 36-36-54(b)(4)). Municipalities may annex contiguous areas intended to be developed for “urban purposes” as well as areas in between the existing city limits and areas to be developed for “urban purposes.” The municipality must prepare a plan for servicing the area to be annexed and hold a public hearing prior to the referendum. An area intended to be developed for “urban purposes” is defined as an area with a total resident population equal to at least two persons for each acre of land and an area subdivided into lots and tracts such that at least 60% of the total acreage consists of lots and tracts five acres or less in size and such that at least 60% of the total number of lots and tracts are one acre or less in size (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-54(c)-(d)).

Island Annexation
Municipalities with a population of 200 or more may unilaterally annex contiguous “unincorporated islands” (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-90 et seq.). “Unincorporated islands” are areas completely surrounded by one or more cities. To be eligible for this type of annexation the unincorporated island must have been such an island on January 1, 1991. All or any portion of such an unincorporated island may be annexed simply by the passage of an ordinance by the city council. The intent behind this authority is to allow cities to alleviate voting and service delivery issues caused by such areas.

Local Act of General Assembly
In addition to annexation by home rule, the Georgia General Assembly may change a municipality’s boundaries and annex property into the municipal limits by enacting local legislation. Where more than 50% of an area proposed for annexation by local act is “used for residential purposes” and the number of residents to be annexed exceeds 3% of the city’s current population or 500 people, whichever is less, a referendum on annexation must be held in the area to be annexed. “Used for residential purposes” means that the property is a lot or tract five acres or less in size on which is constructed a habitable dwelling unit (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-16).

Land can also be deannexed from a city by the legislature. Note that introduction of a local act of the General Assembly must be preceded by notice to the municipality affected and advertisement in the newspaper (O.C.G.A. § 28-1-4).

Procedural Considerations

Once property has been annexed, the city must file an identification of the annexed land with the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the county within 30 days of the last day of the quarter during which the annexation becomes effective (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-3; O.C.G.A § 36-36-38). The city must also send to DCA and the county a letter stating the city’s intent to add the annexed area to maps provided by the United States Census Bureau during the next regularly scheduled boundary and annexation survey of the municipality (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-3(a)(3); O.C.G.A. § 36-36-3(g)). Additionally, the city must send to DCA a list identifying roadways, bridges, and rights-of-way on state routes that are annexed, including total mileage annexed (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-3(a)(4)). The addition of this information to the official census map is important for a variety of purposes, including redistricting.

Relationship with Counties

Service Delivery
Although annexation primarily concerns residents seeking annexation and the municipality being petitioned, counties do have some potential interests. Some counties have claimed that annexation places a burden on county governments by depriving them of revenue, making land use decisions difficult, or interfering with the provisions of service delivery. While municipal property always remains on county property tax rolls, annexation of businesses and establishments that serve alcohol will result in occupations taxes and alcohol license fees being paid to the city. Counties are able to continue to collect property taxes on property that is annexed, but they are freed from the costs associated with providing services that will be provided by the city.
Every county and city must enter into a service delivery strategy agreement in order to address which local government will provide each service, where it will provide each service and how each service will be funded (O.C.G.A. § 36-70-23). These agreements should also address double-taxation of municipal residents, duplication of service and any changes in service delivery in response to annexation. Furthermore, cities and counties may enter into intergovernmental agreements and have in place mutual aid agreements that establish respective roles for service delivery.

Zoning, Land Use, and Dispute Resolution
Property annexed into a city must be rezoned by the city (Ga. Const. Art. IX, Sec. II, Par. IV). If the city and county have a common zoning ordinance with respect to zoning classifications, which is a rare occurrence, the city can adopt a zoning ordinance stating that all annexed property shall be zoned by the municipality for the same use for which it was zoned immediately prior to annexation. Otherwise, the city must complete the requirements for rezoning the property, except for the final vote on rezoning, prior to adopting an annexation ordinance or resolution (O.C.G.A. § 36-66-4(d) et seq.).

When a municipality receives a petition for annexation, it must provide a copy to the county, along with the proposed zoning and land use of such area, by certified mail or overnight delivery (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-111). If the zoning or land use of an area to be annexed will be changed immediately after the annexation and such proposed change would impose a material increase in burden upon the county due to the proposed change in land use or zoning, proposed increase in density or infrastructure demands related to the proposed change in land use or zoning, the county governing authority may file an objection to the annexation (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-113(a)). The county governing authority must vote in an open session to object to the annexation and provide evidence of any financial impact forming the basis for the objection (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-113(c)).

In order for an objection to be valid, the proposed change in zoning or land use must:
  • Result in a substantial change in the intensity of allowable use of the property or a change to a significantly different allowable use, or
  • Significantly increase the net cost of infrastructure or significantly diminish the value or useful life of the capital outlay which is furnished by the county to the area to be annexed, and
  • Differ substantially from the existing uses suggested for the property by the county’s comprehensive land use plan or permitted for the property pursuant to the county’s zoning ordinance or its land use ordinances (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-113(d)). 
State law requires the appointment of an arbitration panel (comprised of five members) by DCA not later than 15 days after the city receives the county’s objection. This panel must render a binding decision within 60 days of appointment and must consider certain factors in rendering their decision. The county is required to provide supporting evidence that its objection is consistent with its land use plan and the pattern of existing land uses and zonings in the area of the proposed annexation. If the panel rules on zoning, land use, or density conditions, its findings will be recorded in the deed records of the subject property. The arbitration panel will dissolve ten days after it discloses its findings. The county will pay 75% of the cost of the arbitration, including the costs incurred by the city and property owner. The arbitration panel will apportion the remaining 25% between the affected parties (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-114 et seq.).

The decision of the arbitration panel may be appealed to superior court (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-116). After the final resolution of any objection, whether by agreement of the parties, act of the panel, or any appeal from the panel’s decision, the terms of the arbitration panel’s decision will remain valid for a period of one year. The annexation may proceed at any time during the one year time period without any further right of objection by the county. Following the annexation and zoning in accord with the panel’s decision, the municipal government cannot change the zoning, land use, or density of the annexed property for one year (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-117). Likewise, the county is prohibited from changing the zoning, land use, or density of the property proposed for annexation for one year if the proposed annexation is abandoned (O.C.G.A. § 36-36-118).

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