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Cityhood fever spreads from Fulton and deeper into DeKalb

Faced with alleged corruption and ineptitude in DeKalb County, Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between are joining hands and pushing for the potential formation of a new city named Lakeside.

New cities have been trendy in the metro area since Sandy Springs broke away from Fulton County in 2005. Quickly, other Fulton County residents followed suit and newly incorporated areas north of the Chattahoochee River popped up like mushrooms after a strong rain.

The genesis of those cities, along with their DeKalb counterparts of Dunwoody and Brookhaven, is as old as local politics. It is a tale about the lack of leadership — and the lack of will to reach across divides to find solutions that benefit everyone. It's (sadly) a tale too familiar to all living in the sprawl we call metro Atlanta. And while building walls and making government more local might seem convenient for the people who call these areas home, the new cities could cause problems when we try to fix the bigger issues that affect us all.

Sandy Springs fought for 25 years to break away from Fulton. It was a bitter battle fought on the small fields of emergency response times and potholes and included the inevitable discussion of racial politics. Residents of the area north of Buckhead felt encroached upon by the expansion-minded city of Atlanta and abandoned by the stewards of Fulton County. County commissioners foresaw an already strapped budget bereft of a large portion of its tax base.

Like many doomed relationships, breakup was inevitable. It took the Republican takeover of both sides of the Gold Dome, but the area that would become Sandy Springs spurned the county and practically overnight became the sixth largest city in Georgia. Lessons learned from the city's fight were put to quick use, and the science of citymaking was perfected with alarming speed. Enter Milton and Johns Creek. The contagion of incorporation soon spread to DeKalb, where many of the same arguments used by the Fulton enclaves were used to create Dunwoody.

After the initial rush, the desire for new cities quelled and the areas inside the Perimeter seemed immune — particularly in DeKalb with its unusual form of government. Since the early '80s, the county has been overseen by a powerful chief executive officer, a form of benevolent dictatorship. In the hands of a competent manager, the system worked. However, all knew that in the wrong hands, DeKalb could quickly unravel.

But the poison of civic discontent spread with the formation of Brookhaven; the first newly formed city contained completely within the Perimeter. Echoes from the past sounded again as people from Buford Highway to Blackburn Park complained of lack of police presence and slow response times for emergency services. In 2011, the bill to create the new city was introduced. Brookhaven was incorporated the following year.

In less than 10 years, the time to spawn new cities has shrunk from decades to months. Now, fueled by a floundering school system and a CEO under investigation for malfeasance, the fever for civic creation has reached the very doorstep of the county offices.

The city of Lakeside, as proposed, would stretch from Toco Hills to Tucker (and could even include areas being considered for cities of Briarcliff, Druid Hills, and LaVista Hills). Although largely white, it would be more diverse than its new city neighbors to the north.

It is this diversity which will likely lead to Lakeside's inevitable formation. While previous uprisings have largely been Republican affairs, Lakeside would include districts represented by both sides of the aisle. The board of the Lakeside City Alliance, a nonprofit studying the proposal, includes a potentially powerful player in former state Rep. Kevin Levitas, D-Tucker.

With a board of education so feckless that Gov. Nathan Deal was forced to remove the majority of its members, with property tax rates rising yet again, and with the county district attorney investigating CEO Burrell Ellis, it is difficult these days to argue against the creation of a new city in DeKalb.

But Lakeside and its predecessors, worthy or not, are indicative of a larger problem in the metro Atlanta region.

We tout ourselves as full of possibilities — one of the country's fastest growing metro areas that's home to the premier city of the South, one that rose from the ashes to dominate our region. But it is time we admit we are also the region of what might have been and what might never be.

Sandy Springs and the municipalities that followed in its wake were born out of frustration. Now, frustration threatens to breed yet another player at the already crowded table. With the local-control fever burning closer than ever to the city core, who's to say how far it will spread?

Judging by the ease with which residents form new boundaries, the future of the metro region may be a patchwork of individual fiefdoms, each dealing with its own battles, personalities, and challenges.

And what no one discusses is how these new players will behave when transportation or water shortages — or any other of our myriad infrastructure issues — again rise to the surface. The table can only accommodate so many chairs.

Lakeside will form if the residents wish. It should not be viewed with anger or resentment. Given the state of DeKalb County, enough may be enough and cityhood might be the only solution.

But despite the passion now felt, any celebration should hold a touch of sadness. Once again, when faced with staggering problems, we do not unite to seek solutions. Instead we break apart a little more.

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