The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

23 October 2004

The limits of city limits

By any reasonable standards of size, Juneau, Alaska is huge: in 1970, the city and the surrounding borough were consolidated and the city of Douglas was annexed, and now Juneau covers 3200 square miles, half of which is water — some liquid, some actual ice.

Apart from the ice, this happens in the Lower 48 as well. Jacksonville, Florida covers all of Duval County that isn't otherwise incorporated, over 750 square miles of land area (and a fair amount of water as well). Former Jacksonville Mayor Hans Tanzler explains the rationale for merging the city and the county back in 1968:

The population went down in the city over a 10-year period and exploded 200 percent in the county. Nobody wanted to live in the city, and the city's tax base was becoming eroded and weaker and less capable of carrying the load.

And Jacksonville was hardly alone in its woes, which explains much about Oklahoma City's annexation efforts after World War II and into the 1960s, in which the city ballooned to 640 square miles, then the largest in the nation. (About 20 square miles were subsequently detached.) Bethany and Warr Acres, adjacent to one another, are completely surrounded by Oklahoma City; ditto for Nichols Hills and The Village. Municipalities farther out began to expand: Edmond now covers 85 square miles, and Norman sprawls over 177.

Things reached a peak of sorts in 1999, when the city of Seminole annexed a strip of land about ten miles long and three feet wide, along the west side of Oklahoma 99 from the existing city limits to Interstate 40. Property owners objected, suits were filed, and eventually the state Supreme Court ruled against the city. The state has since acted to make annexation somewhat more difficult. In 2004, two bills were passed to provide some protection to owners in unincorporated areas: Senate Bill 851 exempts land used for agricultural purposes from municipal ordinances when it's annexed, and Senate Bill 905 changes the rules for so-called "fenceline" annexations.

But SB 905 doesn't officially go into effect until the first of November. The city of Harrah, on the eastern edge of Oklahoma County, has a 50-foot-wide fenceline which encloses an unincorporated area and which borders other municipalities in the county. Harrah would like to extend this 50-foot strip to 300 feet, presumably because under SB 905, they will have to have a minimum of 300 feet on at least three sides to be able to annex the interior of the rectangle without having to seek the consent of a majority of property owners.

There's just one problem: property owners tend to take a dim view of being annexed. There's a section of Oklahoma City that extends all the way to the Pottawatomie County line, and about five years ago some residents petitioned to be deannexed, on the basis that the city was never going to get around to providing city services that far out. (Fire Station #36 has since been opened at 17700 SE 104th Street.) Harrah is holding public hearings before the expansion of their fenceline, but I wouldn't expect their proposal to be welcomed with open arms.

Posted at 10:00 AM to City Scene


Just my opinion, but I think There Oughta Be A Law™ that municipal boundaries may not cross a parcel of private property -- they should include all of it or none of it.

There are provisions in Georgia law for landowners to bring the whole of their property into one or another of multiple counties if a county line was drawn across the parcel, but I know for a fact that city boundaries can and do divide existing parcels here, and (by anecdote) in California.

I wouldn't stand for it. Having to make pay two or more property tax bills on a single piece of land, with quite possibly the highest tax bill from a municipality I can't vote in because when they annexed they declined to include my house. Nuh-uh. I'd apply either for full annexation or full detachment.

Posted by: McGehee at 6:59 PM on 23 October 2004

Expanses of ordinary clean water or snow inside city limits? I've seen worse.

Virginia allows cities to annex all or part of neighboring counties, with the result that the cities of Suffolk and Chesapeake include within their limits roughly half of the Great Dismal Swamp (the rest is in North Carolina) and 80% of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The swamp is aptly named: it's huge and wet and contains very few humans and huge numbers of copperheads and water moccasins and clouds of deerflies. It's a good place to add wasps or dragonflies to a bug collection, but has no other known use.

As I recall, the way Suffolk ended up with the NW quarter of the swamp was that it tried to annex its more prosperous suburbs while leaving the poorer suburbs in surrounding Nansemond county. The only way Nansemond could prevent this was to incorporate itself into a doughnut-shaped city that was sparsely-populated and mostly swamp. (As I said, Virginia allows cities to annex all or part of counties without the latters' permission, but it also allows counties to incorporate into cities without permission from neighboring cities. I think that it has to be the entire county, though.) Both sides soon figured out it would be best to merge into a single city, since it was kind of awkward having the city of Nansemond's City Hall (formerly the county building) outside of the city of Nansemond and inside the city of Suffolk. This is all from decades-old memory, but I believe Chesapeake did pretty much the same thing, incorporating an entire county to prevent a city (Chesapeake? Portsmouth?) from nibbling off all the more prosperous bits.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil at 8:29 PM on 23 October 2004

South Carolina, I suspect, is fairly restrictive; there are areas in Charleston and in North Charleston, my old stomping grounds, where you can go down a four-block suburban street and cross the municipal limits two or three times.

Property taxes where I live are wildly variable; there are four millages which must be combined, only one of which is fixed throughout the county (and which is not levied in the two small Rural Fire Districts).

Posted by: CGHill at 8:50 PM on 23 October 2004