The City of Smyrna has experienced rapid growth in recent years and could officially become the largest city in Cobb County following the 2020 Census count. But if it annexes all of the area identified in a new study, its population would swell from 56,685 to an estimated 92,784 and it would add nearly 10 square miles to its footprint.
Areas targeted for potential annexation include small unincorporated pockets, some of which are just blocks from downtown, along with large portions of land that would expand Smyrna east to I-285 and the Chattahoochee River, west to Nickajack Creek and south to Highway 78. It would not include the Braves stadium or Cumberland Mall, and would not bring the city limits inside the perimeter.
However, city council member Tim Gould stressed that, regardless of size, Smyrna is about providing quality over quantity.
“The key for me is that, as we grow we make sure to do so in a way that will continue to provide quality service to our residents and manage our costs along the way,” Gould said. “Whether it’s our current geography or a different one, the key will be managing our finances in a way that will continue providing great emergency services and other amenities.”
The study, conducted by Georgia State University’s Center for State & Local Finance, concludes that all of the annexation areas are financially feasible, particularly more affluent areas to the south and east. The full annexation area would increase Smyrna’s size by up to 6,290 acres, or 57 percent, and its population by 65 percent. The population gains would also make the city Georgia’s ninth largest, up from 14th today.
Of course, any annexation would ultimately be up to the residents of the areas in question. There are three ways for cities to annex property under Georgia law, all of which require voter approval.
“You’ve got to have a pulse on your constituents,” said Peter Bluestein, who conducted the study and presented it to Smyrna’s city council in April. “It’s a tough call, but these opportunities for annexation don’t come up that often for these larger areas. Those are things the council will have to weigh.”
Where things go from here is largely up in the air. Smyrna Mayor Derek Norton noted during an April 16 committee of the whole meeting that the city could end up annexing “a portion of this, all of this or none of this.”
The reasons Smyrna is looking at annexation, per language in the study, include expressed interest from citizens in unincorporated areas near the city and groups formed in recent years to look at creating new cities in east and south Cobb. It also notes that “demographically these annex areas are similar to the City of Smyrna.” Smyrna’s city council approved the study last August at a cost of $45,000.
“This is a really helpful tool to understand the economics of [annexation],” Gould said. “A key is that the residents have to be on board. It’s driven by the desire of residents, that’s the underlying factor.”
At the bottom of the expansion map is a good bit of overlap with a potential City of Mableton that has been studied for the last several years.
William Wilson is a member of the South Cobb Alliance, which has been studying the Mableton cityhood issue, and a resident of the area for more than 40 years. His group is working to bring the measure to a vote of local citizens, though the effort has been stalled by the coronavirus. It could go before voters as early as spring or fall 2021.
The group spent nearly $30,000 on its own cityhood study, which concluded that an incorporated city of Mableton was feasible. Wilson said the group was formed partially in response to a similar annexation study Smyrna conducted in the past. South Cobb Alliance’s goal, he said, is to simply give citizens a choice whether they wind up as part of Smyrna or Mableton, or continue as unincorporated Cobb County.
“We’re making sure that the people that live here, and have made this their home for 20, 30 or 40 years, have an option to voice their concern on what type of structure they’d like in order to progress into the future,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that there’s no animosity between the Smyrna and Mableton factions, stressing again that citizens in the area will ultimately decide what they want.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on becoming the City of Mableton,” he said. “If you’ve got seven city commissioners waking up here, driving these streets, seeing the issues this area faces and dedicating themselves to making positive change, that’s a lot different than having one county commissioner over the area.”
He said Smyrna has already annexed a good bit of the Mableton area and was looking to add more even before the study was finalized.
“We kind of knew this was coming,” Wilson said. “We started this a few years ago because we knew we were in a window, a period of time where we needed to get things completed. We’re in that window.”
Haisten Willis is a freelance writer who lives in Smyrna with his wife, daughter and dog. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from California State University, Fresno, serves on the board of SPJ Georgia and even rides a bike when time allows.