This is my final paper for my Urban Politics class. It is also the paper that gave me my love of city administrative law.
What makes a place a city? Is it the buildings that can be found in it? Is it the people that live in that place? Or is it something else? In common parlance, the name “city” can be applied to any place that people live from places as large as Minneapolis and St. Paul to places as small as Bemidji. Legally, however, a city is a very specific thing. In the United States, a city is “a chartered municipal corporation” (Encarta 2005). The powers that a city has over those that live within its borders are determined by the charter and depend upon how much power the state chooses to give the city (Ross and Levine 2001). Typically, the city has the power to tax, borrow, and plan the development of land within its borders.
Before a place becomes a city in America, it often exists as a township or a village. A township is a subdivision of a county that is allowed some degree of authority to govern itself (Encarta 2005). In Minnesota, townships are governed by a town board that “shall have charge of all town affairs not committed to other officers by law. They shall draw orders on the treasurer to disburse money to pay the town expenses, and to disburse money raised by the town for any other purpose” (Minnesota Statute 366.01). Therefore, the townships have the power to tax their residents and can have additional powers if no one else already has them. Depending upon the county that they are in, townships have different amounts of power. Some townships have are granted the ability to plan what is build inside their borders while others are not. Usually, townships have lower tax rates than cities because their residents do not have to pay for things like a local police department and a sanitary sewer system. These things are provided by the county at a much lower cost (Friedrich 2005). It is their desire to keep their taxes lower and remain rural in character that has kept many townships from incorporating. However, their lack of incorporation leaves them open to a threat that could potentially wipe their towns off the map: annexation. When faced with the threat of annexation, most townships will petition the state for incorporation as an effort to protect their ability to govern themselves.
Historical annexation. “Annexing” a place means “to incorporate (territory) into an existing political unit such as a country, state, county, or city” (the American Heritage Dictionary 2000). In the mid 19th century and the early 20th century, annexation was a method used by the major cites to expand their territory. In fact, if the major cities like Boston and Philadelphia had not been allowed to annex territory, they would have never become the great cities that they are today (Jackson 1985). The 1850’s and 60’s saw many massive annexations. In 1854, the city of Philadelphia annexed 128 square miles of territory and quadrupled its population. In 1889, the city of Chicago annexed 133 square miles of land including Hyde Park and Kenwood. Finally, 1898 the city of New York expanded its territory to take in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. This increased its territory from forty four to 300 square miles and increased its population by two million people. Other large cities expanded their territory by a series of smaller annexations. Detroit, for example, “annexed almost constantly between 1880 and 1918” (Jackson 1985).
None of these annexations were carried out with the input of the people who actually lived in the places that were annexed, and even if they had tried to provide their input, they probably would not been listened to. This is because annexation is controlled by the state legislature and the state legislature during the heyday of annexation operated with a mindset that a bigger government was always better than several smaller governments (Jackson 1985). No matter how well the individual suburbs in a certain area were run, the belief was that having one large city government to carryout services was always better. In addition, the state legislatures also subscribed to the doctrine of forcible annexation that said that “no small territory could be allowed to retard the development of the metropolitan community…” (Jackson 1985). In fact, Philadelphia’s massive annexation was carried out even though the suburbs that were taken over sent many delegations to the state capital in opposition to it (Jackson 1985).
After thirty or so years of unmitigated annexation, opposition to annexation began to grow. The first suburb to resist annexation by a major city was Brookline when it managed to survive a takeover bid by Boston. Soon, the major cities throughout the East and Midwest found their attempts at annexation blocked. The suburbs were growing in wealth and influence and lawmakers were learning that they could not ignore the opposition of suburban voters anymore (Jackson 1985). Between 1870 and 1930, annexations became less and less common. The major cites in the United States increased their area by 400 percent between 1870 and 1930 but have increased it by less than ten percent since 1930 (Jackson 1985).
Annexation today. Today, annexation is much less common than it once was. Instead of being able to take over massive plots of land like they were able to do in the 1850’s and 1860’s, cities are now usually restricted to annexing small plots of land. When annexations do occur, it is generally believed that annexation should be voluntary and have the approval of the residents in the affected area (Jackson 1985).
In Minnesota, annexation is an administrative process that resembles a mediation proceeding rather than a hostile take over. Municipal Boundary adjustments in Minnesota are governed by Chapter 414 of the Minnesota legal code and are carried out under the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Administration (Minnesota Department of Administration 2005). Annexation proceedings begin when a petition is filed to the Minnesota Department of Administration asking that a certain area can be annexed. The body filing the petition can be a municipality ,a group of homeowners, or a township. Once the petition has been filed, the parties involved take part in a series of evidentiary hearings to help the Department of Administration decide whether the annexation should be allowed to proceed (MDA 2005). If the area subject to annexation is an unincorporated township, the MDA has to consider a number of factors including the population, layout, and environment of the affected area, the ability of the town government to provide services to the affected area, and the ability of the area of the township to function without the affected area. After reviewing the facts, the Department will approve the annexation if:
the subject area is now, or is about to become, urban or suburban in character
municipal government in the area proposed for annexation is required to protect the public health, safety, and welfare
the annexation would be in the best interest of the subject area.
The annexation will be denied if
annexation of all or a part of the property to an adjacent municipality would better serve the interests of the residents of the property
the remainder of the township would suffer undue hardship (MN Stat 414.031).
If either party does not like the decision of the Minnesota Department of Administration, they must appeal it within thirty days. During the appeal, the parties argue their case in a mediation session before an administrative law judge. All costs of the mediation are paid by the parties and the ruling can still be the same because the judge considers the same statutes as the Minnesota Department of Administration. If the parties appeal the ruling from the mediation session, they have the chance to argue their case before another judge. In this appeal, they can challenge the outcome of the mediation session as well as the evidence provided during the annexation proceedings. The decision made in this appeal is final (Scotillo 2002).
Once a township has been taken over by a municipality, it is governed by the laws of the municipality. The town laws are repealed and the town board is dissolved. Instead of paying the relatively low township taxes, the citizens of the annexed area now have to pay the municipal taxes (MN Stat 414.031)
Historical incorporation. After the Civil War, changes in state laws made it easier for small towns to incorporate into small cities. Incorporating into a small city became a good strategy for a small town wanting to maintain its independence to use. Confronted with the threat of a the land hungry New York of the 1890’s, Westchester county saw a jump in the number of villages incorporating into cities as small town incorporated to protect themselves from annexation (Jackson 1985)
Although the heyday of annexation ended in the early twentieth century, incorporation continued to be used to maintain an area’s independence. Being incorporated gives the citizens of an area a government that is more homogenous and responsive to their needs than a county government (Danielson 1976). Some scholars also believe that many of the incorporations that were carried out in the 1960’s and 1970’s were done to exclude poor people and African Americans from a certain area. In 1969 for example, the residents of the township of Black Jack, Missouri incorporated into a city so they could block the building of an affordable housing development in their area (MN Stat 414.02)
Incorporation today. In Minnesota, the process of incorporation is carried out in much the same way that annexation is. In fact, like the annexation proceedings, the incorporation proceedings are controlled by the Minnesota Department of Administration. The incorporation proceedings can be initiated with a petition of one hundred properly owners or a resolution adopted by the town’s governing board. Once the the Minnesota Department of Administration has received the proposal, they hold a hearing where the area that wishes to be incorporated states the reasons why they want to be incorporated and how they plan to function as a city in the future (MDA 2005). The factors that the MDA considers when deciding whether to allow a place to incorporate are the same factors that it considers when deciding whether a city can annex a part of a township. During the incorporation hearing, the township can be annexed by another city if the Department decides that it would be better for the townspeople to live in (Sulem 2001). Like annexation, incorporation will be allowed if
the property to be incorporated is now, or is about to become, urban or suburban in character
the existing township form of government is not adequate to protect the public health, safety, and welfare
the proposed incorporation would be in the best interests of the area under consideration
The Department can deny the incorporation if it does not believe that being
incorporated would be in the best interest of the township. Also, the Department can change the boundaries of the area asking to be incorporated to make them more consistent with the boundaries of nearby municipalities (MN Stat 414.02) If the incorporation is approved, the township is awarded all of the powers of a city. It has the power to elect a mayor and council, levy taxes, fund a police force, and has full control over its planning and zoning (MN Stat 414.02).
Real World Examples
After gaining an understanding of the basic concepts, it is possible to apply them to real events now occurring in Minnesota. At present, there are 1,789 townships in Minnesota with a combined population of 900,000 people (Minnesota Association of Townships 2005). Therefore, nearly 20% of all of the people in Minnesota live in a townships. Most of these townships live in the Northern part of the state where there is not much of a threat from annexation by neighboring municipalities (MAT 2005). However, there are several townships in the Greater Twin Cities Metro Area. To better illustrate the issues facing townships today, we will examine three local townships: White Bear Township, Denmark Township, and Wyoming Township.
White Bear Township. With a population of 12,000, White Bear Township is the most populous township in the state of Minnesota. It is also the last township remaining in Ramsey County. It was created by the state of Minnesota in 1858 as the township that occupied the northeast portion of Ramsey County. When it was founded, White Bear Township had an area of thirty six square miles. Its area is now ten and a half square miles with the missing twenty five and a half square miles having been annexed by the nearby cities of North Oaks, Gem Lake, Vadnais Heights, and White Bear Lake. The township’s boundaries have been unchanged since 1978 (Short 2005).
Like all townships, White Bear is governed by a three person town board instead of a mayor and a council like a city has. Unlike most townships, White Bear Township is fully developed and provides the same services to its residents that a city would. The township has its own sanitary sewer and water system and even provides sewer and water service to parts of the cities of North Oaks, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, Hugo, and Grant. The township provides police and fire service to its residents though a contract with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office and the White Bear Lake Fire Department, respectively. Even more remarkably, it is able to provide all of these services while maintaining the second lowest tax rate in the county (only the privately owned North Oaks is lower) (Short 2005).
The future of White Bear Township appears to be very bright. It is on very good terms with its neighbors so there is no present threat of annexation. Even if White Bear Township did not have such good relations with its neighbors, it is unlikely that it would be subject to annexation. As previously stated, during annexation proceedings, the Minnesota Department of Administration considers whether the township’s residents would be better served by being annexed into another municipality.
When considering annexation, the Minnesota Department of Administration looks at whether the township is able to provide a variety of important services to its residents. Perhaps the most closely examined service is whether the township is able to provide sewer service to its residents. Failing to safely dispose of waste is not only hazardous to residents, it is hazardous to the environment as well. In fact, the inability to properly dispose of waste is one of the reasons that an Administrative Law Judge approved the annexation of 5,000 acres of Wyoming Township to nearby Chisago City (this case will be discussed in detail later in this paper) (Sheehy 2004).
Because White Bear Township is able to provide its residents with sanitary sewer and water, the well being of its residents will not be substantially improved by the township being annexed by a neighboring municipality. Another factor that is considered in the annexation proceedings is whether the affected area to be annexed is planning to become urban or suburban in character (MN Stat 414.02). White Bear Township is already fully urban making that rationale for annexation inapplicable.
If White Bear Township were to seek incorporation, its incorporation would likely be approved because its residents could not be better served by the township being annexed by another municipality. However, because it is already able to provide most of the municipal services at a much lower cost to its resident, it is unlikely that the township would seek incorporation in the future. However, this is assuming that the township’s relations with its neighbors and its county remain the same. If White Bear Township’s neighbors were to decide that they would like to annex some of the township’s territory, it is likely that the township would incorporate in an attempt to stop that from happening. Also, if the county decided to take a more active role in the planning and zoning of White Bear Township, the township would likely incorporate in an effort to maintain its independence.
Denmark Township. Denmark Township is a town of 1,431 residents and is located in southern Washington County. It was founded in 1858 and is bordered on the south by Hastings and on the west by Cottage Grove. The town is governed by a five member town board. The boundaries of Denmark Township have been relatively stable and the township currently has an area of nineteen square miles. The last major annexation that affected Denmark occurred in the 1930’s when the southern part of the township was annexed by Hastings. There has been no significant annexation pressure since then (Powers 2005).
Unlike White Bear Township, there is no sewer system in Denmark Township. Instead, the residents are served by septic systems and wells. The septic systems are inspected periodically by Washington County to make sure that they are safe. Fire service is provided by a contract that with the city of Hastings and police service is provided by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The township does build and maintain its own roads. The township funds its own attorney and its own development planner . With the exception of its own police department, Denmark is able to provide the same services that a city can (Powers 2005).
In 2004, the town board and the town residents expressed interest in incorporating. Denmark Township is located in a very fast growing part of the metro area and is starting to feel pressure from developers who want to move into its borders. Those who were in favor of incorporation wanted to maintain the township’s rural character as long as possible (Divine 2005). If the township were to incorporate, it would have control over its zoning and block other cities from annexing it. However, its residents would see an increase in taxes because they would have to be paying for police protection and would have to pay to prosecute misdemeanors committed within its borders. To pay for the new services, taxes would have to be increased by 9.5% or $55 on a $300,000 home (Powers 2005).
If Denmark Township were to begin the incorporation proceedings, it is very likely that it would be successful and would not be annexed in the process. Washington County and the neighboring cities of Afton, Woodbury, Cottage Grove, and Hastings all support the incorporation so there would be no threat of annexation from them (Divine 2005). If the theoretical petition for incorporation reached the Minnesota Department of Administration, it would likely be approved because the township is providing the many of the same services that a city would. Due to its being outside of Minnesota Urban Service Area (the line that delineates the outer reaches of the municipal sewer system), Denmark would be unable to provide sewers to its residents as a town or a city (Powers 2005). Because of these factors, it is unlikely that the situation of the residents of Denmark would be improved by it being annexed by another city.
Although Denmark Township would likely succeed at incorporating, its citizens are not sure if they want to do that yet. First of all, the incorporation process is expensive and would cost the township $42,500 (Divine 2005). Also, the residents and the town board are fairly happy with the way that the town is governed and do not believe that a mayor-council form of government could run the city better. In addition, the residents do not agree on what they want the city to look like in the future. Some want the area to remain rural in character while others want it to be more suburban. Some people fear that the cost of the incorporation will be too great in terms of the cost of petitioning the state as well as the increased taxes while other fear that the costs of having large pieces of land taken from it will be still greater (Powers 2005). The townspeople know that the town will not remain a farming community forever; however, they are not sure what they want the town to be in the future.
Wyoming Township. Perhaps the best example of the conflict between annexation and incorporation is the story of Wyoming Township. Wyoming Township located in Chisago County and has a population of about 5,000 people. It is bordered on the south by Forest Lake, on the north by Stacy, on the east by Chisago City, and completely surrounds the city of Wyoming. Wyoming Township is like Denmark Township and White Bear Township in that it is governed by a town board (Wyoming Township 2005); however, unlike the other two townships studied in this paper, Wyoming Township has fought and lost a battle against annexation. Recounting Wyoming’s battle against annexation will illustrate the struggle between annexation and incorporation better than any theoretical situation.
Wyoming Township’s troubles began on June 21, 2004 when Chisago City submitted a petition to annex part of Wyoming Township to the Minnesota Department of Administration. The original annexation petition called for Chisago Annexing 6,204 acres from Wyoming township. When Wyoming Township rejected the initial petition for annexation, Chisago City revised the annexation area down to 5,000 acres. When Wyoming Township rejected the proposal again, the issue was brought up in a hearing held in November 2004 (Wyoming 2005). During this hearing, Judge Kathleen Sheehy ruled in favor of allowing Chisago City to annex the land from Wyoming Township (2004).
When she ruled on the case, Judge Sheehy considered the same factors discussed previously in the paper and found that the annexation should be allowed to take place. The first major issues that the judge considered were whether the area to be annexed was about to become urban or suburban in character and whether it had a comprehensive plan for the future. Wyoming Township is experiencing a great deal of growth and had not updated its comprehensive plan since 1995. What little planning that Wyoming township had done was done to help the township become less rural and more suburban. Chisago City is also growing in population and revises its comprehensive plan every couple of years. Next, the judge compared the methods that the two areas use to manage waste and sewer water. Wyoming Township has no sewer system and instead relies upon septic tanks. Unlike those used by Denmark Township, these tanks are not closely monitored and are leading to pollution of the soil and the lakes around Wyoming Township. In contrast, Chisago City has sewer service that is provided through the Chisago Lakes Joint Sewer Treatment Commission and would provide that service to the residents of the annexed area. Chisago City has storm sewers while Wyoming Township relies on roadside ditches. Because it is a township, Wyoming Township cannot provide police and fire service to its citizens. Instead it contracts with neighboring municipalities for these services. Chisago City is already providing fire service to the annexed area through a contract with Wyoming Township. After considering these factors, Judge Sheehy found that the citizens would be better served as citizens of the city rather than the township, that the township would not be irreparably harmed by losing the annexed territory, and that the City of Chisago would benefit greatly from annexing the land (Sheehy 2004). The annexation went into effect on January 25, 2005. As a result of the annexation, the area of Wyoming Township has lost a third of its residents and 5000 acres of its property. It has also lost a large part of its tax base (Friedrich 2005).
Many of the factors that led to Wyoming Township losing the annexation proceeding seem to stem from the township’s seeming inability to provide services to its residents. However, there may be another reason that the township lost: the annexation proceedings may have favored Chisago City. While it is unlikely that the judge herself was biased, other parts of proceedings may not have been so unbiased. The annexation process is expensive and may even be cost prohibitive to small townships like Wyoming. The parties involved are responsible for paying for all costs of the proceedings including the filing fees and the price of the administrative law judge (Scotillo 2002). In 2002, the Minnesota Department of Administration estimated that the cost of a mediation hearing in a case where the annexation was not contested was between two and four thousand dollars. In contrast, the price of contesting an annexation and having a hearing with an administrative law judge (as was the case with Wyoming Township) was thirty thousand dollars. The price of an appeal is even higher and the prices that wre listed were expected to rise in the following years (Scotillo 2002). For a fairly rural township like Wyoming, the cost of appealing Judge Sheehy’s decision may have been insurmountable.
While Wyoming Township faces no additional threat of annexation from its neighbors, the town board is looking into taking meashres that owuld keep it from happening again (Friedrich 2005). Representatives from the Wyoming town board are meeting wiht representatives from the City of Wyoming to discuss joining the two entities into one single government through a process called consolidation. Unlike annexation, whre the citizens of the annexed area have to obey the laws of Chisago City that they had no part in making, in consolidation, the governments of Wyoming Township and Wyoming City would be equal partners in the new city. The city charter would be made with the input of both governments
While not incorporating into a city has some benefits for a township, it also has some risks involved. The township’s residents enjoy lower taxes and a rural lifestyle. However, because townships are not incorporated, they are vulnerable to annexation by nearby municipalities. When an area is annexed, it is forced to live by the law of the the annexing authority and loses its ability to control its own territory.
Confronted with the threat of annexation, most townships will incorporate into a city rather than losing the right to govern themselves.
Danielson, Michael N. The Politics of Exclusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Divine, Mary. “Town Hall or City Hall?” Saint Paul Pioneer Press (5 March 2005),
Saint Paul Pioneer Press: Archives. <http://www.twincities.com> (4 April 2005).
Encarta Encyclopedia. (2005) Microsoft Corporation: Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. <http://encarta.msn.com>.
Freidrich, Alex. “Township, City Talk About Merging.” Saint Paul Pioneer Press (26 March 2005) Saint Paul Pioneer Press: Archives. <http://www.twincities.com> (4 April 2005).
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier. New York: Oxford Press, 1985.
Laws of Minnesota. (2004) State of Minnesota: Office of Revisor of Statutes. <http://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us>.
Minnesota Association of Townships. <www.http://www.mntownships.org> (20 April 2005).
Powers, Peg. Former Member of Town Board of Denmark. Interview conducted by the author. (20 April 2005).
Scotillo, Christine M. “City Limits: A Report to the Minnesota Legislature on Municipal Boundary Adjustments.” Minnesota Planning. (2002) State of Minnesota: Minnesota Planning, <www.mnplan.state.mn.us > (15 April 2005).
Sheehy, Kathleen. “Finding In the Matter of the Petition of Chisago City for Annexation of Unincorporated Property in Wyoming Township.” Office of Administrative Hearings. State of Minnesota, (26 July 2004).
Short, Bill. White Bear Township Treasurer. Interview conducted by the author. (25 April 2005).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
Wyoming Township. (11 April 2005). <www.wyomingtownship.org> (15 April 2005).
The interviews were conducted via email using the following template:
Hello, my name is Carly Schaps and I am a Political Science major at Hamline University. As a part of my Politics of Urban and Metro America class, I am writing a paper about how and why townships are incorporated into cities. I was wondering if you could answer these questions for me. If you could respond by Friday, I would be most grateful. Thanks,
1. Your Name:
2. Your Job Title:
3. How did ___ Township come to be a township?
4. How is ___ Township governed now? Where do you get your sewer, law enforcement, water, and other services from?
5. Has ___ Township ever been in danger of being annexed by a nearby municipality? How are your relations with the neighboring
6. Why hasn’t ___ Township incorporated into a city or merged with a nearby town?
7. What would stand to change if ___ were annexed or incorporated? How would your law enforcement, property taxes, sewers, and other services and expenses change?
Thanks for the help.