Georgia exurbs have big appeal as some look to leave Atlanta and its problems

ATLANTA — Have you fantasized about leaving it all behind, moving to the country, and raising chickens? Census data suggests a lot of folks are making good on that dream.

More metro Atlanta workers can do their jobs remotely. Metro Atlanta realtors and their clients told Channel 2 anchor Justin Farmer that flexibility means packing up and leaving the metro traffic, taxes, and crime behind.

“We were just popping around, looking around different areas, and my wife said ‘let’s look at Athens,’” explained Jeff Shaver. “It’s close enough to Atlanta and the lake and the things we like to do on weekends.

Shaver and his wife had been proud Atlanta residents for 25 years. But this year they packed up their Buckhead home and children and now live in Athens. Shaver, an investment wealth manager, said clients are now a Zoom call away. Furthermore, he says he doesn’t mind his frequent drives into his Atlanta office. He says it’s worth it to get his family away from Atlanta’s crime.

“It just got to the point that we weren’t comfortable anymore. We made a choice and made a change,” Shaver said.

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Four months ago, Ryan Scates and his family moved from Kennesaw to St. Simons Island on Georgia’s coast. He said remote working, along with high property taxes and crime solidified the move.

“It was great to be able to have a small community in a world-class city and now it seems like that small community is going to be harder to maintain, or it was for us,” Scates said.

These families are hardly pioneers. DC research group The Brooking Institute suggests families were already moving from urban centers to more rural areas pre-pandemic. According to local realtors, the ability for so many white-collar workers to do business virtually has accelerated the trend.

“The southern part of Lake Lanier, Lake Oconee, Madison, Georgia—a lot of appetite in Madison— because you can do your job from anywhere,” said realtor Erin Yabroudy.

Yabroudy said a resurgence of small downtowns means not sacrificing restaurants or nightlife. She said homes in rural and exurban areas can also be hard to find. “No one has seen anything like this,” Yabroudy said.

A Channel 2 Action News analysis of 2020 census data shows of the top 20 counties with the biggest percent population jump from 2010 to 2020, five are in metro Atlanta: Forsyth (43.2%), Cherokee (24.4 %), Gwinnett (18.8%), Henry (18%) and Fulton (15.9%).

The 15 counties outside of the metro with the highest percent growth were Bryan (48%), Oconee (27.4%), Columbia (25.8%), Jackson (25.5%), Effingham (24%), Barrow (20.4%), Dawson (20%), Towns (19.3%), Paulding (18.5%), Greene (18.3%), Lee (17.2%), Houston (17%), Bulloch (15.5%), Walton (15.4%), and Union (15.3%).

This shows while exurban and rural counties are seeing new residents, metro Atlanta’s population continues to grow.

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The census data also shows these growing counties outside metro Atlanta are becoming more diverse. Percent increase in Black, Asian, Hispanic and Latino residents are double, even triple digits.

Realtor and developer Bonneau Ansley is concerned so many of his clients cite crime in their reasons to move. “The crime is an issue and will be for (the) future...(of) our great city if we don’t get it under control,” he said.

For Jeff Shaver, the move from Atlanta is bittersweet. He fears rising crime and other big city woes could pull more families away from a city he loves. “It has to turn the corner,” Shaver said. “Something must be done, otherwise you’ll see more of an exodus happening.”