More Oddities from Independent Cities, Part 2

On March 26, 2017 · 4 Comments

Virginia’s independent cities continued to offer their peculiar geographic secrets. The earlier part of this series explored tendrils and quadripoints. However, other strange features hid within their twisted layouts. I turned my attention to enclaves and pinches next. Those unusual features probably came from heated negotiations between cities and counties during drawn-out annexation hearings. In Virginia, that involved a special court held specifically for that purpose, overseen by a three-judge panel.

Two separate cities included enclaves within their borders. Those little doughnut holes belonged to the counties that surrounded the cities.

Enclave within Fairfax City


Fairfax Enclave
Enclave within Fairfax City

Fairfax City became an independent city in 1961. The county surrounding it — also called Fairfax — extended much farther back in history. English colonies, including Virginia, still hugged North America’s Atlantic coastline when Fairfax County appeared in 1742. The county built a courthouse in a convenient, central location in 1799. That became a seat of local government and a little town grew around it. Eventually the town evolved into Fairfax City.

Fairfax County remained quiet and rural for the next several decades. However, it did not escape the Civil War unscathed. Virginia joined the Confederacy. Union troops crossed the Potomac River as the conflict began, capturing a chunk of Northern Virginia. This protected its capital city, Washington, DC. It also put Fairfax directly on the border between two hosile armies. Troops from both sides crisscrossed Fairfax repeatedly between 1861 and 1865, each occupying the courthouse at different times.

The war’s first death of a Confederate officer took place on the courthouse grounds in 1861 when Union troops shot Captain John Quincy Marr during a skirmish. Two years later, Confederate forces from the legendary Mosby’s Rangers paid a visit.

Mosby’s most famous raid occurred in March of 1863, inside Union lines at Fairfax County Courthouse, when he captured Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton. Mosby found Stoughton asleep in bed. Awakening the General with a slap to the rear, Mosby asked "Do you know Mosby, General?" The General replied "Yes! Have you got the rascal?" "No," said Mosby. "He’s got you!"

Obviously Fairfax County didn’t want to give up its historic courthouse when Fairfax City split from it. The two carved-out an enclave around the courthouse grounds that remained part of Fairfax County. I confirmed this arrangement on the Fairfax City zoning map.


Enclave within Manassas


Manassas Enclave
Enclave within Manassas

A little hole also sat within the independent city of Manassas, although it didn’t offer the same historical pedigree as the one in Fairfax. Nonetheless, it existed for a similar reason. I confirmed its existence in the Manassas zoning map and then I drilled-down to check it out. Manassas carved its territorial independence from Prince William County, however, the county courthouse already stood there. It became an enclave. The space contained the Prince William District Court, an Adult Detention Center, the Health Department, a senior center and some associated parking, all part of Prince William County, not Manassas.

Then I spotted something truly surprising. Somehow a single residence remained within the Prince William enclave. An entire neighborhood became part of Manassas except for 9210 Peabody Street for some unknown reason. Zillow dated its construction to 1965 and Manassas gained its independence in 1975, so the house definitely existed before the city changed its status.

The family residing there lived in Prince William County. However, they would need to cross completely through Manassas if they wanted to visit anyone else living in the county. On the other hand they wouldn’t have to cross a border if they ever got arrested. I’m sure they’d have other concerns in that situation anyway.


A Pinch to Grow an Inch


Grayson Pinch
Grayson County Pinch

A different oddity came into view in Galax. Here, a county line complicated a border. The line originally separated Grayson County from Carroll County. Galax grew right atop the line, which annexed land from both counties. The western side of Galax also contained a nob. It extended almost all the way to the county line and then stopped a tiny bit short. That prevented Galax from pinching-off a piece of Grayson. My eyeball estimate concluded that it fell just about seventy feet (21 metres) short of creating a Grayson exclave.

It was awfully nice of Galax to keep Grayson intact. Theoretically the farmer that lived inside that pinch remained connected to the rest of the county. However it didn’t really matter much because the only road access to the farm came from Galax. That made it a "practical exclave."


Bonus Avoidance



Staunton, Virginia

Check out the eastern border of Staunton along Interstate 81. I found several examples of Staunton drawing its border to avoid highway infrastructure maintenance. At the northern end where I-81 diverged from Staunton, the border turned northwest along Route 262 to avoid the cloverleaf. Near the midpoint, New Hope Road crossed above I-81 so the border did a zig-zag around the bridge. Approaching the southern end, the border avoided Route 250’s cloverleaf and then turned to the west, making sure to skip the Interstate 64 interchange. These was classic behaviors influenced by the anti-city provisions of the Byrd Road Act.

On March 26, 2017 · 4 Comments

More Oddities from Independent Cities, Part 1

On March 23, 2017 · 5 Comments

The recent Prince George Exclave article explored Virginia’s unusual laws and how they created an unexpected result geographically. It didn’t end there. I reexamined the borders of each of the states’ independent cities for additional anomalies. The intersection between complicated annexation procedures and disparate city-county interests created some rather dysfunctional situations.

All base maps and boundaries came from the excellent Mob Rule website, and its "county lines imposed on Google maps" option. I added labels and arrows for clarity.

Avoidance


Chesterfield's Tendril
Chesterfield County Tendril

Presumably independent cities submitted annexation proposals because they wanted something attractive, like adjacent parcels with favorable businesses and residential density. Conversely, they would also want to avoid certain pieces of land. That seemed to be the case with the Prince George exclave where the City of Hopewell didn’t want to use its own tax receipts to maintain the Route 10 bridge. I think something similar may have happened when the city of Colonial Heights gained independence in 1961.

For whatever reason, Colonial Heights didn’t seem to want to deal with the Appomattox River. Maybe road and bridge maintenance figured into this, or maybe the city viewed owning a bunch of uninhabited river islands as inconvenient. Who knows. Regardless, Chesterfield County’s original border on the eastern side of the river remained in place. The judicial panel that granted this annexation approved Colonial Heights’ border on the western side of the river. That created a long, narrow tendril of Chesterfield wrapping around the eastern and southern flanks of Colonial Heights. It also prevented Colonial Heights from ever sharing a border with Prince George County, separated by only a tenth of a mile at one place along Route 144, Temple Avenue.

Also unbeknownst to me, I never knew that I’d driven through a tiny sliver of Chesterfield while traveling between Colonial Heights and Petersburg on Interstate 95. I’ve taken that route probably a hundred times over the years. Google Street View images revealed no highway signage for that anomaly. It’s no wonder I hadn’t figured it out until now.


James City Boundary Cross


James City Boundary Cross
James City County Boundary Cross

Quadripoints can be a lot fun. I certainly enjoyed my trip to the Four Corners marker in the southwestern United States a number of years ago. However there existed an even stranger version of this phenomenon, the elusive quadripoint boundary cross. These occurred when a section of a territory — national, provincial, county, etc. — connected to its affiliated territory by only a single point. Twelve Mile Circle featured a trio of such international quadripoint boundary crosses in its earliest days (Jungholz, Baarle-Hertog, and the since-eliminated Cooch Behar situation).

I found it difficult to describe the phenomenon. Maybe the image above conveyed the situation better. Notice the border between James City County and the independent city of Williamsburg. A chunk of James City, almost completely surrounded by Williamsburg, connected to the remainder of James City only at the boundary cross. Also the name bothered me. James City County sounded a bit schizophrenic. Did it want to be a city or a county? Make a choice, James. They might be forgiven though. The name went all the way back to the original colonial James City Shire established in 1634. Government officials simply carried its historical designation forward. Either way, it was definitely a county and not an independent city despite the name.

There seemed to be no compelling reason for this nearly disconnected chunk of James City County. A parking lot and part of a medical center occupied most of its space (Street View). I had visions of city and county attorneys battling back-and-forth during the annexation hearing. Maybe this reflected the results of a heated negotiation. James City County managed to hold onto that little corner.


Bristol Boundary Cross


Bristol Boundary Cross
Bristol Boundary Cross

A similar situation existed at the northern edge of the independent city of Bristol. Washington County surrounded Bristol everywhere except on the southern side where the state of North Carolina bumped up against it. Bristol’s northern appendage seemed to be bolted-on to the remainder of the city, somewhat haphazardly. The initial nub contained public space, the Sugar Hollow Park. I supposed every city deserved a good park and this one featured camping, sports fields, picnic pavilions, bike trails and a pool. That was a logical annexation. Nicely done, Bristol. The next nub farther up surrounded a reservoir built in 1965, Clear Creek Lake. A golf course hugged it eastern shore. Kudos again to Bristol for its strategic annexation, even if the space attached to the rest of the city by only a hundred-foot neck.

However, the Sugar Hollow Park nub also connected to an even smaller parcel of Bristol through a quadripoint boundary cross. This parcel accommodated a single house on several acres of forested land. I dug a little deeper and found its address: 13174 Topeka Drive. According to Zillow this 1939 home had 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, and 1,034 square feet of livable space. The estimated value was $89,101. Someday I’d love to know the sequence of events and special reasons that led to this single home becoming a part of Bristol. Did the mayor live there or something? It made no sense.

The independent city oddities continued although I got tired of typing. Part 2 will explore enclaves within the cities and pinches that came close to creating the same.

On March 23, 2017 · 5 Comments

Prince George Exclave

On March 19, 2017 · 6 Comments

Every once in awhile I receive a tip where I need to drop everything so I can search for an explanation. Frequent reader "Aaron" discovered an exclave that I’d never seen before. Shockingly, it appeared in my own home state of Virginia and I’d actually driven through the exclave during my county counting adventures. How did I not notice it?

That’s all it took to suck me down into a rabbit hole for most of a Saturday afternoon.


The Exclave

The exclave definitely existed. I examined several sources and found it each time. Check it out:


Prince George Exclave
Prince George Co., VA Exclave
via Mob Rule

Virginia’s independent city of Hopewell carved its territory from the northwestern corner of Prince George County, at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. Prince George surrounded Hopewell on three sides — east, west and south — while Chesterfield County hugged its northern shore across the Appomattox. However, a tiny dot of Prince George stood alone, stranded from the rest of the county. This overlapped a segment of Virginia State Route 10, Randolph Road. Someone driving south from Chesterfield along the road would first hit Prince George (sign) and then enter Hopewell (sign) only 0.32 miles (0.5 km) later. This wasn’t an inconsequential road either. It supported an Annual Average Daily Traffic Volume of 19,000 vehicles.


Prince George Exclave View
Inside the Exclave
via Google Street View, September 2016

This brief slice of Prince George coincided with a bridge crossing the Appomattox, from the river midpoint to where the bridge returned to dry land. The exclave formed a rectangle no wider than the bridge itself. I will visit it someday. Fortunately there appeared to be a safe point to explore it, on Riverside Avenue directly below the bridge. That, of course, fell within the exclave too.


Annexation by Independent Cities


Hopewell Welcome Sign
Welcome to Hopewell. Photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

The Commonwealth of Virginia maintained an odd assortment of independent cities, a highly rare arrangement within the United States. Of the 41 independent cities found in the U.S., 38 of them fell within Virginia (only the cities of Baltimore, St. Louis and Carson City did not). I’ve mentioned this anomaly several times in 12MC over the years, usually in reference to my county counting pursuits. Those independent cities were not subservient to their surrounding counties and thus "counted" as county equivalents.

I hadn’t looked much at the mechanics of it until now. Fortunately I found a publication from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. The arrangement extended all the way back to Virginia’s colonial era, an artifact carried over to modern times. Cities could annex land from adjacent counties as needed. However, counties generally did not like to cede their territory. This situation begged for an equitable process so the General Assembly adopted revised procedures in 1904. It required proposed annexation to go to a special court composed of three judges who would listen to both sides before making a decision. The court approved about 80% of annexations over the years according to this publication. Virginia recognized 128 of 160 proposed city-county annexations until it implemented a moratorium in 1987. Annexations caused too much animosity between cities and counties.

Hopewell incorporated as an Independent City in 1914. Thus, it followed the 1904 procedures. The 3-judge panel would have adjudicated Hopewell’s formation and any expansions. The resulting exclave must have been an explicit and intentional act on Hopewell’s part. There must have been a specific reason for Hopewell to exclude that tiny sliver of Prince George. It was not an accident.


Byrd Road Act


Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd. Wikimedia Commons; in the Public Domain

Then what might have been the reason? I found a likely candidate in some Depression-era legislation, Chapter 415 of the 1932 Acts of the General Assembly. This was more commonly called the Byrd Road Act. Harry Flood Byrd controlled Virginia politics for a half century through his Byrd Organization, a powerful political machine. He served as governor from 1926-1930, then as a U.S. Senator from 1933-1965. The legislation in question focused on secondary roads, enacting Byrd’s vision even though he no longer served as governor.

The Depression hit Virginia’s rural counties particularly hard. They didn’t have enough money to pave most of their roads, much less maintain them. They Act offered a novel solution. Control of secondary roads reverted to the state at the discretion of each county. State tax receipts would then fund construction and maintenance. An estimate at the time predicted that the Act "would reduce rural taxes by $2,895,102 annually." This seemed like an excellent trade-off and nearly every county accepted the offer (and today only Henrico and Arlington Counties control their own secondary roads as a result).

However, money had to come from somewhere. The Act excluded independent cities which still had to maintain their own secondary roads. Additionally, more people and more wealth concentrated in cities. Therefore state taxes paid by city residents subsidize road construction and maintenance in counties. Cities got hit twice, once for their own roads and again to support rural roads throughout the state. That was just fine by the Byrd Organization which found its base of power in rural counties. Even today people marvel at the wonderful, beautiful roads in the middle of nowhere throughout Virginia. Thank the Byrd Road Act.


Conclusion

Now, back to that bridge carrying drivers on Route 10 across the Appomattox River. If Hopewell annexed the land and water beneath the bridge then Hopewell’s taxes would have to maintain the bridge. If Hopewell declined to annex the bridge — leaving behind a tiny pocket of Prince George County — the state of Virginia would have to maintain it. That created a powerful financial incentive for Hopewell to exclude the bridge from its annexation proposal. Prince George County wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t have to pay for maintenance regardless.

I never found an official government document that said explicitly that this was the reason. However, I believed a preponderance of the evidence pointed clearly towards that direction. It made perfect sense and no other reason seemed plausible. The only other mention of this exclave anywhere on the Intertubes seemed to reach a similar conclusion.


Ironic Addendum

Virginia’s counties got a great bargain in 1932. However, the system began to fray over the decades especially for rapidly urbanizing counties. A report published by George Mason University in 2011 concluded,

Almost one-third of Virginia’s secondary road system is currently deficient, and programs designed to attract county participation in construction and maintenance are not working… the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) secondary construction program has provided minimal funding support for constructing new secondary roads in recent years…

Some localities, like Fairfax County with over a million residents, began to chafe under a system where the state controlled its secondary roads. Insufficient, traffic-clogged roads threatened to strangle the county with gridlock. Fairfax even began to explore conversion to independent city status in order to regain that control.


One Final Note

A special thank you to Aaron. This page now serves as the definitive source of information for the maybe ten people on the entire planet who want to know about this exclave. I can’t believe I spent more than 1,200 words talking about a plot of land only a third of a mile long by a hundred feet wide. That’s why you read Twelve Mile Circle. Right?

On March 19, 2017 · 6 Comments
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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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