On May 22, 2018, voters living in south Forsyth County were tasked with making a decision that had been raised for years: whether or not to add a second city in the county.
While supported by a majority of voters living in the area — 54 percent of the vote (7,616 votes) to 46 percent (6,351 votes) — the proposed city of Sharon Springs did not reach the required 57.5 percent of voters, a compromise between a simple majority and two-thirds majority, to become a new city.
A year after that vote, Forsyth County District 2 Commissioner Dennis Brown, who represents the majority of the area of the proposed city, said while he saw “some stray voltage” from opposing sides immediately after the decisions, he felt that tensions largely cooled after the vote but there were still lessons to be learned.
“I think both sides realize on a different day, it could have gone the other direction,” Brown said. “It was so very close that if anyone wasn’t paying attention that we needed to do some things differently, then they were sadly mistaken and almost irresponsible not to see the message that was sent.”
In 2018, House Bill 626, authored by District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones, was approved by both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly before being signed by then Gov. Nathan Deal.
In the bill, the city was proposed for three services — zoning, sanitation and code enforcement — and would have a millage rate capped at 0.5 mills. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, which is 40 percent of the actual market value.
The approximate boundaries of the proposed city were east of Ga. 400 except the portion west of McFarland Road; south of Hwy. 20 except for areas in the city of Cumming; west of the Chattahoochee River — already a boundary with Gwinnett County — and north of the Fulton County line.
About 50,000 people live in that footprint.
The approved bill wasn’t the first attempt at creating a new city. In 2015, a similar bill was introduced by Jones’s predecessor, Mike Dudgeon, which proposed the city as a “city light,” meaning the city could have just those three services. A legal opinion was later given that the state constitution does not allow limiting the number of services, which was one reason for the original bill being pulled.
The proposed city led to a number of studies on the potential impact from the Sharon Springs Alliance, a group in favor of the city, and Forsyth County, which saw commissioners at the time generally pushing back against a new municipality.
The issue led to some heated debates and meetings surrounding cityhood of Sharon Springs, with those in favor saying the area had been underrepresented in zonings, would give those in the area more local control and would provide a sense of community in an area where most residents have addresses associated with cities outside Forsyth County, such as Alpharetta, Duluth or Suwanee.
“Forsyth is a big county, and I think there is a disconnect sometimes between how far people are away from each other physically or even relationally, so what drew me to it was the community element, creating a community and identity for that area and the people that lived there,” said Jay Williams, a member of the Sharon Springs Alliance who said he has lived in the area for about a decade. “I think that is really, really important anywhere you live. Forsyth is one of the only counties in the state, I think the only county in the state, to have one city as large of a county it is.”
He said another reason he supported the city was the current set up of the board of commissioners — one commissioner each for five districts — and felt the proposed government of a mayor and city council all from the area would have been a benefit.
“It’s really hard at the county level when you have five commissioners and nobody is really in charge to have somebody leading and casting a vision for the community,” Williams said. “What a city can do is you can actually have a leader of that city and task that vision for the community.”
For those who opposed the city, a common point was that the city would increase taxes in the other areas of the county, which were not able to vote on cityhood, and add new layers of government.
As the bill’s sponsor, Jones said he still regularly hears from both sides.
“I think it’s multifaceted,” Jones said. “There isn’t a town hall that I go to or an HOA meeting that I go to where Sharon Springs or the creation of a city is not brought up. You hear from the pro [cityhood side] that they want greater representation, they want more intimacy, they feel as if they would be able to better control growth and be able to lure in certain businesses to be able to balance the tax digest.
“On the other hand, from folks who have traditionally been against the formation of municipalities in the county, you still hear similar thoughts … they’re saying, ‘I don’t want a second layer of government. I don’t want the fear of additional taxes, etc.’”
District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent, whose district would have been slightly impacted and voiced opposition to the bill ahead of the vote, said the county was taking steps to relieve issues for those in the area — such as a $200 million transportation bond, new zoning condition standards and an update to the county’s comprehensive plan — and he believed some on the pro-city side misrepresented the costs and impact of the potential city.
“The people in the movement didn’t want anybody to know all of those things that we had done to help work them through their complaints over zoning and infrastructure,” Levent said. “They intentionally didn’t talk about it and didn’t want them to know that we had done all those things to mitigate all the issues the public was having.”
Levent said state rules would have required the city to have a courthouse and attorneys to prosecute crimes, to take over roads in the area and to make agreements with the county for services.
“They also knew that we were going to have to give them X amount of funds out of the county funds — the law was going to require it — and we were going to have two choices on the county,” Levent said. “One would have been cut your services that you so much demand or raise taxes to continue.”
Williams disagreed with Levent’s assessment and said some of those opposed to the city spread “disinformation” that was “patently false.”
Brown said he hasn’t been hearing a lot about cityhood recently but since he represents most of the proposed city, he is taking steps to make sure that those in the community are heard and that leaders need to be aware of those concerns.
“In the short time I’ve been in office, I don’t think I’ve turned a single meeting down with anyone about anything, so to bring government closer to the people, we’ve certainly tried to do that,” Brown said. “I don’t think we’ve had any contentious zonings that people have been upset with, at least to my knowledge.”
While the cityhood issues still remain, it’s unlikely there will be another cityhood bill dropped any time soon, especially from Jones, who represents the area and has already committed to not revisiting the issue.
“I’m going to hold to that, and I think maybe if you were the pro-est of pros or the con-est of cons, there’s a lot of reasons we were able to get the legislation through and one of them was my commitment that I wouldn’t raise the legislation again. In my mind, we were going to have the Super Bowl, not the World Series,” Jones said.
For Williams, he said though the cityhood fight is on the backburner, those in favor of the city are still going to do what they think is best for the area.
“At the end of the day, the Sharon Springs Alliance is still going to be around, whether there is a city or not and they’re still going to be advocating for the best interests of the people in the community,” Williams said. “I think that you see that because a lot of people with our organization are out there trying to help folks and being part of the community in whichever ways they can. I think that’s one of the reasons people do trust us because we live there and care about and nobody wants to start something there that ruins it for everybody.”