Friday, December 22, 2006

180 Year Old Church Prize in Annexation Battle

Courtesy -> PAUL KAPLAN The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 12/22/06

For most of its 180 years, Union Primitive Baptist Church stood in the middle of nowhere in a rural corner of what is now northwest Fulton County.

For the last few months, it has sat in the middle of a hissing match over land. The little red brick church is being pulled in opposite directions by a pair of cities that want it for their own.It's not the church they're enamored with. That's just an old two-room prayer hall that turns no heads and pays no taxes.

What the cities want is bigger than Union Primitive Baptist Church, a lot bigger.By a geographical quirk, the church sits on a thin strip of land that connects two large tracts that both Roswell and the new city of Milton covet. They want it so badly, in fact, that both cities have annexed it. "It's nice to be wanted, " Pastor Marty Smith said.

This kind of border dispute has become more common since Sandy Springs won permission to become a city last year. Now all of north Fulton is incorporating, and the church, just north of Roswell, is in one of the last remaining uncommitted areas.

Back when Union Primitive was founded, in the late 1820s, land disputes like this were often settled with guns. Today it's mostly lawyers and politicians firing the volleys. Both sides in the dispute have tried hard not to step on the church, which sits on a couple of quiet acres and has more headstones in its small graveyard than members, who number fewer than 100. But Union Primitive, a conservative congregation, could not be kept out of the dispute.

"That church is the connecting piece, so we didn't really have a choice," said Joe Lockwood, the mayor of Milton.Property owners south of the church, have expressed a preference for joining Milton. That area is surrounded by Ros- well, however, so unless Milton gets the church property, it can't have the tract south of it, because a city only can annex land it's connected to.
So whoever gets the church gets the big prize with it.

Both cities were able to stake a claim to the church by using different annexation formulas covering different geographic areas. Milton wants Union Primitive so badly that it annexed it twice, under two different formulas.For its part, the church didn't care which city it joined, Rev. Smith said. "Both cities are good cities," he said.

But it had to pick one or the other, because Fulton County will not serve the area much longer. The series of incorporations, which added Milton and Johns Creek this year, took the county out of most day-to-day operations on the Northside.The church is inside a three-mile strip of land that was omitted from Milton's boundary because residents there hadn't decided between the new city and Roswell. The competition for the last significant piece of Northside land has been very aggressive — and reminiscent of the fight Roswell had with Johns Creek over the Newtown neighborhood. Roswell lost that battle, and it seemed to add a sense of urgency to its current squabble with Milton.

There also have been skirmishes in south Fulton over annexations into Palmetto and Union City, and in neighborhoods south and west of Atlanta. Those were sparked by a proposal to create a new city of South Fulton. When it came time for Union Primitive to choose sides, its deacons picked Milton. It was mainly because neighbors of the church generally preferred the new city, which will initially have a lower millage than Roswell. Some neighbors asked the church to join Milton so they could join it too."That dominated the discussion with the deacons, how we'd be most helpful to the folks around us," Smith said.

All of this could end in one of three ways: in court, in the General Assembly, or in a room where the two sides cut a deal.Both cities would prefer the latter method, and they are in negotiations.
"I said, 'Make us an offer, and I'll take it to the City Council," Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said.
What if they can't make a deal?"It would be nice to see our preference honored, but if not, we won't take to the streets," Smith said. "There are some things worth fighting for, but this isn't one of them."

So the little church caught in the middle is keeping its head down and meeting for lunches every other week after Sunday services — sausage, yellow rice, sliced ham and lots of good cheer. The last thing these folks wanted was to disappoint either side in the land dispute.

"We've lived peacefully here for years," said Ted Walker, a member of the church for more than four decades. "We didn't want to be the linchpin for problems."Walker had a 12-acre spread up the road from Union Primitive back when the area was rural. He sold it all when the area started getting crowded, and he moved farther out, to Cherokee County.

The area around the church remains knitted together by meandering two-lane roads, but housing developments are springing up all along those roads, including several near the church. The house directly across the street from Union Primitive has six bedrooms and three fireplaces, and it's yours for $900,000.

Big money, big disagreements.

"We didn't realize this was going to be controversial," said Jere Jones, a deacon at the church. "It got a little difficult."

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