The 2016 legislative session has wrapped up and Governor Deal has signed or vetoed all the bills that made it to his desk. The bill to expand MARTA was one of the highlights as it went from being a done deal to a casualty of politics before ultimately morphing into a game-changing piece of legislation for the City of Atlanta. Among the other highlights from the session was a bill allowing the residents of South Fulton to vote on forming their own city, the potentially growing threat of noise from space flight activity, a failed attempt to re-establish tax credits for electric cars, and the always strangely controversial subject of buffers along state streams and rivers.
Atlanta’s Transit Expansion
In re-capping the major bills we were tracking this session, let’s start with the big one: the imminent expansion of transit within the City of Atlanta. The Georgia Senate’s original plan to allow residents of Fulton and Dekalb Counties to raise their taxes to pay for an $8 billion expansion of MARTA came unhinged after several communities and politicians in extreme North Fulton County voiced opposition to transit. Despite the overwhelming majority of the residents in both counties favoring such a proposal, the Senate scrapped the legislation. As we elaborated upon in an earlier article, this ended up being a blessing for Atlanta and a huge loss for North Fulton.
Instead of an $8 billion expansion across the region, the Senate passed SB-369 allowing residents of the City of Atlanta to vote on raising the sales tax by a half cent to pay for $2.5 billion in transit expansion across the city. This is precisely the plan city officials and residents have been salivating over for years. The Senate’s original plan would have called for a couple projects within the city, mainly the Clifton-Corridor light rail line. The plan that passed, though, allows much more money to be spent on transit in the city, which means we may see light rail along the beltline much sooner than anyone anticipated.
We’ll end this part of the discussion by showing MARTA’s map of potential transit enhancements. Included here is the Clifton-Corridor project, though additional funding would likely have to come from the state or Dekalb County considering half the line lies outside of city limits. Governor Deal signed the bill, so Atlanta residents will vote on whether to raise taxes to pay for these improvements in November.
City of South Fulton
The signing of HB-415 will allow residents of South Fulton to vote on whether to become their own city. This has been a recurring issue for many years now with bills failing the last few sessions. Interestingly, in 2007 when the bill did make it to the ballot, residents overwhelming voted against forming a city with 85 percent declining the option to incorporate. Should voters approve the measure this time the City of South Fulton would be the latest addition to the growing list of new cities in the metro area and would have a population of around 90,000.
Steam Buffer Confusion
The Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act establishes a 25 foot buffer along all state waterways; meaning no development is allowed within 25 feet of steams and rivers. Local jurisdictions may have more stringent policies, but statewide the minimum buffer is 25 feet. This has been the rule for several decades.
Last year the Georgia Supreme Court threw the policy into confusion when it declared that the buffer only applies when “wrested vegetation“ (permanent vegetation) is present along rivers and streams. This effectively means that the buffer could apply and then not apply every few feet along a single river. For example, if a property owner has a lot that abuts a river, the rule may apply for the first two feet where vegetation is present then not apply along the next 15 feet if no vegetation is present… and then apply again along the next 30 feet where vegetation is present. This clearly creates a confusing and somewhat silly situation. The buffer is a part of a law that seeks to prevent erosion and sedimentation, so a rule that does not require a buffer where vegetation is not present (the precise condition under which erosion is more likely to occur) makes little sense policy-wise.
So the Georgia House took up HB-966 to declare once and for all that the buffer applies along all state rivers and streams regardless of whether vegetation is present. Unfortunately, it failed to make it out of committee. This is a bit surprising since, in its own ruling, the Supreme Court called on the legislature to clarify its intent and the current law based on that ruling not only undermines the point of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act, but creates an impractical situation for property owners.
Georgia Space Flight, Electric Cars, and Townships
The bill that would have prevented local jurisdictions from creating ordinances declaring space flight noise to be a nuisance, HB-734, failed in the Senate. The bill ostensibly sought to make Georgia more attractive to the private space flight industry by preventing local governments from interfering with its daily operations. It passed the House by a vote of 164-8, but it failed to get out of committee in the Senate. This goes down with other pieces of legislation in Georgia, and throughout the country, aiming to prevent local jurisdictions from passing bills with which state politicians do not agree. (See Tybee Island’s proposed ban of plastic bags and, more controversially, North Carolina’s law that overturned Charlotte’s ordinance protecting LGBT rights – no citation needed.)
The House also decided not to address HB-877, a bill that would have re-established tax credits for those who buy electric vehicles. The previous tax credits helped establish Georgia as one of the leading states in electric vehicle purchases. Last session the legislature passed a controversial bill allowing certain auto companies (read: Tesla) to sell directly to consumers instead of through car dealerships. The failure of HB-877 probably has something to do with Tesla’s impending release of its more affordable Model 3. According to Tesla, over 100,000 people have already put down deposits on the new $35,000 cars. If this is the case, incentives like tax credits are probably not needed.
Lastly, townships. What is a township? It sounds like something from the 1800’s or England so what’re we doing talking about them here in Georgia? Last year, Jeff Lanier, the Deputy Legislative Counsel for the Georgia Legislature, issued a report to the Georgia Senate declaring the so-called “City Lite” concept unconstitutional. We posted a more in-depth article about this several months ago, so we’ll just touch on the basics here. Under the interpretation by Mr. Lanier and others, Peachtree Corners and several other proposed cities cannot exist in their current forms under the Georgia Constitution. This is because the constitution requires all cities to have certain powers and, under the “City Lite” concept, Peachtree Corners and others were specifically given only limited powers by the Georgia Legislature.
The idea of the “City Lite” concept is to allow residents to form their own cities in order to have more control over zoning and development issues, but to limit the powers of the cities for the purpose of preventing increased taxes for residents. Well it turns out that other parts of the country, mainly the Northeast, have already dealt with this problem and resolved it through the creation of Townships. Such entities are allowed in the state constitutions and largely achieve the goals of the proponents of the “City Lite” concept.
Both the Georgia Senate and House introduced bills HB-785 and SB-272 calling for the eventual creation of townships under the Georgia Constitution. Both failed to leave committee. Considering that we have existing cities that are presumably not allowed under the Georgia Constitution, as well as an increasing demand for new cities by “City Lite” proponents, this is a situation that will eventually have to be resolved.