Justice Keith Blackwell, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Justice Keith Blackwell, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

 

 

 

 

The Georgia Supreme Court has ended years of legal battling between the city of Atlanta and Fulton County over who has the right to tax a 1.4-acre lot in an industrial park on the western side of the city.

The land in question has far greater importance than the boarded-up bank building that sits there.

The city won.

With a unanimous opinion written by Justice Keith Blackwell, the high court upheld Atlanta’s 2017 annexation of a parcel in the Fulton County Industrial District. The county sued, alleging the annexation was prohibited by a 1979 local constitutional amendment creating the industrial park.

The opinion affirmed Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan, who ruled the amendment was void from its inception 40 years ago because it violated the “single subject” rule of the Georgia Constitution. The rule says a constitutional amendment can make only one change at a time unless different actions are related.

The 1979 amendment creating the Fulton Industrial District also contained a provision about school taxes.

“Simply put, because the 1979 amendment provided that there could be no overlap between the District and the City, the taxation of properties in the City did not (and could not) relate to the creation of the District,” Blackwell said. “This complete absence of relatedness falls far short of the relation required by the single subject rule. As a result, the trial court correctly concluded that the 1979 amendment was never properly adopted because its enactment violated the single subject rule.”

This was the second time the dispute had come before the Supreme Court. In the first round, the high court ruled the county’s appeal premature, since the city had not yet carried out the annexation. So the county sued again, after the city went through with annexing the land. The county’s lawyers argued that, if Atlanta could establish the right to annex that one piece of land, the city could theoretically annex—and tax—the entire industrial park. So millions of potential tax dollars annually forever were riding on the question.

Robert Ashe III of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore argued the case for the city of Atlanta. “The City is very pleased the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the City’s 2017 annexation,” Ashe said Monday by email. “The City has been fighting for several years to win the right for Fulton property owners to freely choose annexation, and this ruling vindicates the City’s efforts. It’s not every day the Supreme Court strikes down a local constitutional amendment as having been unconstitutionally enacted, so this was a fascinating and fun issue to work on for the City.”

County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said Monday by email, “The County will govern its actions by the ruling and adjust the location of the parcel in question accordingly.”

Asked to elaborate, she added, “The parcel the city sought to annex will be placed within the city limits of the City of Atlanta for all purposes in Fulton County records.”

However, Perkins-Hooker said she expects the county’s concerns about protecting the rest of the industrial park land to be addressed by the General Assembly this year. The case is Fulton County v. City of Atlanta, No. S181156.