TUCKER, Ga. â?? First of all, this "city" doesn't technically exist.
Don't tell that to state highway engineers, who have a sign for Exit 37 off Interstate 285 northeast of Atlanta that says, plain as day, Lavista Road â?? Tucker. Don't tell it to the Tucker High School Tigers, state champions in AAAA football in 2008 and 2011, or to the Lady Tigers, who just took the state basketball title. And don't tell it to the people working in the businesses near what would be downtown Tucker if it were a city.
"I had no idea this wasn't a city," says Kea Harrison, manager of the 250-flavor Popcorn Haven near what would be downtown Tucker if Tucker was a city.
Neither did most residents of Atlanta. Tucker, in north-central DeKalb County, is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as one of 9,721 Census Designated Places, which are the statistical counterparts of areas such as cities, towns and villages. Tucker, in government parlance, is a CDP and not a city.
Still, most folks hereabouts were content with their Twilight Zone-like existence as the City That Isn't There.
Until last year.
That's when unincorporated Tucker got swept into the new cities fever rolling across metro Atlanta: Two groups of residents looking to form the new cities of Lakeside and Briarcliff proposed borders for their envisioned cities that would gobble up chunks of Tucker.
After more than 120 years, and in self-defense mode, Tucker began a push to become a city itself.
"The few times that cityhood had been discussed in the past, it just seemed that Tucker was able to get everything accomplished that the leadership wanted to do without being an incorporated city," says Kathy Powell, treasurer and co-founder of the Tucker Historical Society. "Obviously, Tucker is near and dear to many people's hearts. The concern is protecting borders."
In recent years, Georgia has been the epicenter for the creation of cities from one suburban community after another. Residents want to flee big government and seek better, more efficient services for their tax dollars.
Since 2005, seven cities have been created in three metro Atlanta counties â?? DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett â?? according to Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. The first, Sandy Springs, was incorporated in 2005; it was the state's first new city since Peachtree City in 1959, Henderson says.
Residents pushed this year to form at least four cities â?? Tucker, Briarcliff, Lakeside and Stonecrest â?? in DeKalb County; several other efforts are in various stages of development in other metro Atlanta counties.
Atlanta political analyst Bill Crane, who calls it "a new-city epidemic," worries that the spate of new cities creates another layer of municipal government â?? which will mean expensive pension and benefit obligations for employees and the diminution of counties.
"Three out of the four new (DeKalb) cities are fighting over our large commercial super center, which is called Northlake, (an unincorporated community with a mall, office space and residential housing)," says Crane, who grew up and lives in that area of north central DeKalb County. "Tucker is the only one that makes any sense. It's already there. It has a downtown. It has generally agreed-upon borders."
Crane isn't the only one concerned about the impact of new cities on the county. DeKalb County's interim chief executive officer, Lee May, urged the state Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on new cities "until legislation is really crafted to allow it to occur in a balanced approach." He has said DeKalb lost $18 million a year with the creation of Dunwoody in 2008 and $25 million annually when Brookhaven was incorporated in 2012.
"I could see where the county leadership would be deeply concerned in some of these areas," says James Brooks, city solutions director at the National League of Cities. "They should perhaps look to the level of service delivery they're giving to those citizens and the cost, efficiency and effectiveness of those services."
When cities are formed in unincorporated areas of a county, they often snatch away the highest taxpayers, says Leora Waldner, an associate professor of public administration at Troy University who studies how cities are formed.
"They carve out the tax-rich assets, the areas where they'll be able to get the highest tax revenue with the lowest service needs," she says. "They usually do exclude low-income communities. They draw their boundaries with purpose, and the purpose is to exclude the low-income communities that will be difficult to serve. So the counties get stuck with them."
The land rush of new cities in DeKalb County grew out of a desire for smaller government and "some concern about incompetence" in county government, says Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.
DeKalb's former chief executive officer, Ellis Burrell, was indicted last June on 14 felony counts, including extortion, theft by taking and conspiracy. He was suspended by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who appointed May as interim CEO.
In December 2012, the county school system was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accused it of a decade of bickering, nepotism and sliding academic performance. That came after Crawford Lewis, the former superintendent, and others in his administration were indicted on charges related to a school construction scandal.
Oscar Martinez has been the general manager of Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Tucker for three years.
"I hadn't heard that we weren't a city," he says. "We've got a fire department close to here. We've got a police department down the street, too. Everything's right here. We've got the high school, we've got stores. What else does it take to be a city?"
In one way, the spate of new Georgia cities bucks the national trend: According to an examination of new cities published in December in The Journal of Planning Literature, the rate of new cities has dropped sharply in recent years. In the 1950s, researchers found, a city formed every three days; from 2000-2010, the rate had dropped to a new city every 24 days â?? an 86.2% decline.
"New cities are not that common anymore," says Waldner, a co-author of The Journal of Planning Literature study.
In another way, the cities unfold in a very traditional manner. Cities often form in clusters, Waldner says, citing such examples as those that occurred from 1990-2010: 10 new cities in King County, Wash., nine in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and seven in Union County, N.C. "New cities inspire other new cities to form," Waldner says. "The neighboring areas see the new cities and think, 'Wow, they have better services and lower taxes. Where do we sign up?' "
Georgia made it easier for new cities to incorporate after a Republican majority gained control of the state Legislature in 2004. Some states have especially easy incorporation rules. Missouri has no minimum population requirements for towns and villages. In the 1990s, both River Bend, pop. 10, and Biehle Village, pop. 11, were incorporated in Missouri.
Some states have gone the other way after new cities eroded county tax bases. Dade County, Fla., imposed a one-year moratorium on new cities in the 1990s after several cities formed there, resulting in at least a $100 million annual loss to the county. After Citrus Heights incorporated in Sacramento County, Calif., in 1997, the state passed a "municipal alimony" law requiring newly formed cities to compensate the county for the net amount of lost revenue.
This week, the Georgia Legislature dashed hopes for new cities, when bills that would have created the cities of Tucker and Lakeside - the proposed cities that had advanced the farthest - both died in committee.
But Waldner says there's no end in sight to the cityhood frenzy in Atlanta â?? not without intervention. "The most likely way to slow down the spread of new cities is a moratorium or a change in state law," she says.
In Tucker, Powell and others aren't giving up the fight for cityhood.
Powell says one of the new cities planned would have taken the cemetery where members of the founding Tucker family are buried.
"The Tucker family would no longer be in Tucker," she says. "That's such a shock to the system for the people of Tucker. People are concerned. They're really concerned."
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Read the original story: Residents fight to save the City That Isn't There