The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods is heading into a new year with a new leader who is ready to focus on issues like neighborhood security — while not choosing sides in the cityhood battle.
Debra Wathen, an Atlanta native and Paces resident, is chairing the influential coalition of neighborhood and condo associations after over a decade of involvement, including as vice-chairman. She replaces Mary Norwood, who this month began service as the new District 8 Atlanta City Council member.
“I’m a strong believer in the Buckhead Council because I believe all of the neighborhoods need a voice,” said Wathen in a recent interview. “I feel ready and prepared. … I just feel like the organization is on good, solid ground at this point in time.”
Wathen was born in Luckie Street public housing while her father attended Georgia Tech; he went on to become an architect specializing in public housing. She grew up in Brookwood Hills at a time when the area called Buckhead was smaller, not yet enlarged by neighborhood identity and real estate marketing. “Growing up, I was not allowed to say I lived in Buckhead,” she said with a laugh.
After attending Northside (now North Atlanta) High, she became a certified public accountant, working at a large firm and then a post-production studio. Then she had four children — including triplets — and worked from home with her husband’s mortgage business.
Her neighborhood association involvement began in 2010, when the Paces Civic Association was looking for a new president and not finding takers.
“Really I just raised my hand like so many people do, and I enjoyed every bit of it,” said Wathen. She says she learned a lot about issues like private security patrols and local zoning. Much of Paces is large-lot, single-family zoning, and that “requires a major defense to prevent it being taken over by the developers,” she says.
She became the Paces representative on the BCN, which was two years old at the time, and remained involved up to the present.
Wathen was poised to be the BCN chair in 2018 when, partly at Wathen’s suggestion, Norwood took the position in part as a political comeback from her loss in the 2017 mayoral election. Norwood was a well-known political figure, having served as an at-large City Council member and making two unsuccessful but extremely close runs for mayor.
Wathen said she knows she has big shoes to fill after Norwood. “She was awesome for the whole organization,” she said. “… I think we were respected. We just didn’t have the clout that she brought to the organization.”
One of Norwood’s innovations was running the BCN much like the City Council, with committee-like “interest area groups” focused on such policy topics as traffic and trees. Wathen said she intends to keep that committee structure — “and I’ve even added one, which is going to be our ‘neighborhood security’ area of interest … because I really think in this day and time that is really first and foremost in everybody’s mind.”
Neighborhood security focus
Part of the motive is looking at expanded and better-coordinated private security patrols that are funded by businesses and neighborhood associations. That was a major part of the “Buckhead Security Plan,” a crime-fighting program privately created by such organizations as the Buckhead Coalition, the Buckhead Community Improvement District and the Atlanta Police Foundation in late 2020. But it seems that little work in that regard has been done, at least in the residential neighborhoods.
Wathen noted that some neighborhoods don’t have such patrols to improve. “There’s neighborhoods like Paces and Mt. Paran and Chastain that can afford to do this … and there are smaller neighborhoods that can’t afford to have a security patrol in their neighborhood, and they really need some help,” she said.
Down in City Hall, Norwood is already proposing that the City Council create a “Buckhead Public Safety Task Force” that would include a member from BCN.
Cityhood debate and new mayor
Of course, some residents are proposing another solution to crime: Buckhead cityhood. It’s an increasingly bitter political battle that is about to go before the Georgia General Assembly for consideration, possibly followed by a November referendum. Wathen says the BCN is staying out of that fray except to provide any information sought by its members — which could include holding special meetings on such open questions as the status of Atlanta Public Schools if the cityhood movement progresses.
“My aim is to really and truly protect the quality of life in all neighborhoods. And I don’t care if it’s the City of Buckhead or the City of Atlanta,” said Wathen. “Right now, I feel like the Buckhead Council needs to press forward on dealing with the issues. And we’re not going to take a position on whether we’re for or against the [cityhood] issue because it’s such a personal decision.”
“But we feel like there are so many questions to answer [about cityhood], and we want to work to answer those questions for neighborhod residents,” Wathen added. “I personally couldn’t even take a position right now if I wanted to because I don’t have the information….”
Wathen did say she empathizes with the unhappiness behind cityhood support. “I understand 100% where they’re coming from and feel like Buckhead has definitely not gotten what we should get in a lot of different circumstances,” she said. “We have 12 [City] Council districts, and two of them make up the vast majority of Buckhead, and if we got two-twelfths of Renew Atlanta [infrastructure improvement bond funding], I think people would be happier. But I don’t think it always works that way.”
She says the City has flubbed other issues like commuter traffic through neighborhoods. “And so for that reason, I feel like we just need to be heard,” she said. “The City needs to take a step back and listen to Buckhead residents. I think we just need someone to stop and listen to what we have to say.”
Newly elected Mayor Andre Dickens has promised to do that kind of listening as part of his battle against Buckhead cityhood and a generally more inclusive approach to governing. Wathen said she has invited Dickens to speak to the BCN, but so recently that she is not surprised he has yet to respond. “I would love to have him come out and do a town hall in Buckhead,” she said, adding he also will need time to gather answers to questions Buckhead might ask.
“My general feeling is, he is going to make a difference,” Wathen said of Dickens. “He’s trying. I have a positive attitude. … Personally, I think he is a great person. I think he cares about the city and loves the city.”
Other issues galore
Meanwhile, the BCN has plenty of other topics on its plate as the new administration and City Council gear up to address such policies as zoning code changes and rewrites and a new Tree Protection Ordinance.
“I think zoning is always going to be an issue, of course,” said Wathen. “We still need to be vigilant and protect that [single-family] zoning, though I feel the mayor has sort of said he is not looking to intrude on single-family zoning to be the answer to affordable housing. But that will always be something we need to protect.
“And road improvements and infrastructure improvements are going to be an important issue,” she added. “We have so much traffic coming through Buckhead neighborhoods, our roads are destroyed.”
Another area of concern is stormwater management issues, where Wathen said budget problems seem to be chronic and could be something the BCN advocates to increase.
The BCN’s meetings have remained virtual since the start of the pandemic. Wathen said she hopes to move soon to a hybrid model, with at least board members meeting in-person, but permanently maintaining a virtual option “so people can tune in from their living rooms.” The Zoom era has boosted engagement in some ways, she said.
The BCN’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 13, with an agenda topped by City Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. talking about chronic problems with trash collection in the pandemic. Elected officials scheduled to speak including Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, Norwood, and at-large City Councilmembers Keisha Sean Waites and Matt Westmoreland. For more information, see the BCN website.