By Baker Owens
While some weird and unusual things happened in 2020—the pandemic, murder hornets, Jupiter and Saturn in alignment—what remained constant were opportunities and trials for municipalities at the state capitol. In 2021, expect more of the same from the General Assembly. Legislative challenges for Georgia’s cities are inevitable as they contend with the ongoing public health crisis, revenue and staffing struggle and their core responsibilities of code enforcement, fire protection, public safety and other municipal services.
As the legislature gathers at the capitol for the 2021 session, GMA is read for its 88th year of protecting the interests of cities.
“GMA’s Legislative Policy Council (LPC) has been briefed on many of the issues this year that GMA will be watching carefully,” said LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton, chair of the LPC, “and although many of them are perennial issues they still require continued vigilance from GMA’s membership.”
One of those recurring issues is a residential building design standards preemption bill that would restrict how cities can regulate housing elements, such as materials or construction practices.
“I can’t think of a more perfect example of an issue where the state should maintain local control. Homebuilders in Oconee County want the state to set the same design standards for Oconee County, Buford Highway in Brookhaven and Lake Oconee—three incredibly different communities,” said Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven. “The people who know what’s best for the look and feel of my community are my neighbors and the local leaders we elect, and I think nearly all Georgia citizens would agree with that.”
Another issue that has continued to percolate in the General Assembly for a couple of years is the regulation, or lack thereof, of short-term rentals such as Airbnb. Not only are communities often not aware of the existence of these rentals, but there is also the issue of revenue from hotels or innkeeper taxes. Legislation is anticipated that would limit the ability of cities to regulate them as they see fit, and GMA is wary of a state-level, one-size-fits-all approach.
Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, has seen the impact of this issue up close and personal in his Lake Oconee district.
“It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood and sometimes people come and have these wild parties. We’ve had our local governments pass some solid regulations on these issues. We want to be sure and keep local control over that,” Belton said. “We don’t want to have a state law that attempts to impose a top-down solution.”
Rep. Todd Jones, R-Cumming, agrees.
“I believe in home rule. I believe the city council and commissioners have the right to determine what fits best for their community,” Jones said. “The idea that the capitol should control what’s going on with [short-term rentals] in municipalities is wrong.”
Another issue at the fore for GMA involves the process a city uses to annex land. House Bill 24 is sponsored by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, and, among other things, would allow for objections to annexation based on proposed tax abatements or other financial issues.
Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman is concerned the legislation may be too broad and have an unforeseen impact on Georgia’s cities.
“The legislation covers many important issues: annexation, economic development and revenue for our schools. What concerns me is that these issues are not necessarily related to each other, and there’s a huge potential for unintended consequences in trying to shoehorn a solution for them—based on the circumstances that exist in one specific jurisdiction—onto all of Georgia’s cities,” Geierman said. “I will be following this legislation closely and hope that GMA is given a seat at the table in crafting and refining any bills related to these topics.”
“As association staff have been doing since 1933, GMA’s talented advocacy team will be working closely with members of the General Assembly and our dedicated city officials in protecting the interest of municipalities,” said Tom Gehl, director of governmental relations for GMA.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.