Legislation has been introduced in the Senate and the House that would allow for the creation of townships in Georgia. This new form of government, which is used in other states, would have control over zoning and code enforcement issues, but not the other responsibilities that come with running a city. In the House, Rep. Mike Dudgeon of Johns Creek introduced HB 785, along with the necessary proposed constitutional amendment in HR 1051. A similar bill and resolution was introduced by Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick as Senate Bill 272 and Senate Resolution 724.
In a township model, residents of the township would elect representatives, who would then act as a planning commission to approve or disapprove of future development independently of the county. The township would be able to levy a tax up to half a mill to cover its expenses, including code enforcement. Townships, unlike cities, would not get a share of the county’s LOST and SPLOST sales tax revenues, and wouldn’t be able to raise taxes beyond the half mill cap.
The push to allow townships comes following a report by a Senate study committee tasked with studying annexations, deannexations and incorporations last summer. The report concluded that the “City Lite” government offering only a few services that was used by Tucker and Peachtree Corners is likely unconstitutional. In the city lite model, the enabling legislation authorizes the city to provide a few services, typically dealing with zoning, while leaving other services, such as fire protection and water supply to the county. In theory, providing fewer services reduces the taxes needed to pay for city operations, making the proposed city more appealing to voters.
The study committee concluded, however, that due to home rule provisions in the Georgia Constitution, cities lite could decide on their own to offer additional services without having to go back to voters in a referendum, despite what their charter might have said. In addition, cities are not bound by restrictions on a maximum millage rate specified in their charters.
It’s no coincidence that the townships effort is being led by legislators representing Forsyth County and St. Simons Island.
A perceived lack of representation in the zoning process and a fear of overdevelopment in the southern part of Forsyth county led to an effort to create the city of Sharon Springs, which would occupy an area from the Fulton county line to the south to Georgia 20 in the north, and from the Chattahoochee River in the east to Georgia 400 in the west. its citizens would represent about a quarter of the county’s current population.
During the 2015 legislative session, Rep. Mike Dudgeon introduced a bill that set the foundation for a city-lite in the area, pending further research. Over the rest of the year, residents and elected officials discussed several other possibilities to control growth while providing transparency, including annexing into the city of Cumming, or changing the composition of the Forsyth County commission. Late last year, Rep. Dudgeon announced he was withdrawing the incorporation bill, which was no longer supported by the Forsyth legislative delegation, and that he would push for a township model instead.
In a press release announcing the introduction of the township bill and resolution, Rep. Dudgeon said, “I believe our state needs a township model where local citizens can vote to create a community and exercise zoning authority without taking on the services and tax burdens of a full city. I think that should the General Assembly and the voters approve this amendment that it is the best path for my community to pursue in the future.”
Concerns about overdevelopment in St. Simons Island and Sea Island led the Glynn County delegation to push for townships. State Rep. Jeff Jones, who lives on St. Simons, said that zoning proposals put forth by the county’s Island Planning Commission were overridden by the full county planning commission, leading to frustration. Yet, other services provided by the county, including public safety and sanitation serve the island well. Jones sees the township model as a right-sized answer to meeting the needs of island residents. So does Sen. Ligon, who introduced the township bill in the Senate, and who expects to work together with Rep. Dudgeon to get a final vetrsion passed.
“The Glynn County legislative delegation was pleased to see the Senate Annexation, Deannexation and Incorporation Study Committee recommend the township model as a way to incorporate in our state,” said Sen. Ligon. “I am pleased to introduce this legislation that will allow us the opportunity to explore the feasibility of this kind of incorporation on St. Simons Island.”
No hearings have yet been scheduled for either the House or Senate versions of the measures.