More Oddities from Independent Cities, Part 1

On March 23, 2017 · 3 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.

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?

Directional South Africa

On March 16, 2017 · 4 Comments

A few months ago, Twelve Mile Circle featured Directional West Virginia. It focused on the situation of a state with a direction in its name, as well as various places within the state that also featured directions. Why should some random corner of the United States have all of the fun? Entire countries featured directional prefixes. I could play the same game on a national level. That thought struck me when I noticed a visitor landing on 12MC from the city of East London in South Africa.

East London


East London, Undated
City Hall of East London, South Africa. Photo by Nathan Hughes Hamilton on Flickr (cc)

East London hugged the South African coastline on the southeastern side of the nation (map). A respectable number of people lived there too, about a quarter million in the city proper and nearing eight hundred thousand in its larger metropolitan area. It also occupied a strategic spot, the site of the only river port in South Africa. Because of that, Governor, Sir Harry Smith annexed this area at the mouth of the Buffalo River on behalf of the Cape Colony in 1848. He called it East London.

I wondered about the name. The London part seemed obvious. Why East, though? Using Great Circle distances and simple mathematics, it seemed that East London fell nearly 5 times farther south of its namesake than east of it. Logically, shouldn’t it be South London? Maybe Governor Smith named it for the East London section of London, or perhaps its smaller subset, the East End of London. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, a lot of people lived in East London, South Africa, a name referencing two distinct directions.


Cape Tripoint



A large area abutting the Cape of Good Hope traded hands between Dutch and British interests several times between the late Seventeenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, before Britain established stable control. It became a self-governing part of the British Empire and then became a large section of South Africa as it formed. The Cape Colony changed its name to Cape Province upon South African independence. Then in 1994, after the end of Apartheid, it split into three provinces. Each part featured a different directional prefix: Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Northern Cape.

I couldn’t figure out the basis of the split. The borders didn’t seem to follow geographic features like rivers or ridges. Nonetheless they also seemed jagged. While I found numerous sources that explained that the split happened in 1994, none of them discussed why officials drew the lines as they came to pass. I assumed it must have been based on cultural divisions.

Even so, and while I hated not being able to solve the riddle, the split created a wonderful tripoint. Visitors to that spot could stand on three different directional provinces at the same time, the exact place where Eastern, Western and Northern points all came together. I would love to know if people in South Africa visited the tripoint and appreciated it. The Intertubes didn’t solve the mystery. Two clusters of stone appeared as I drilled down on the satellite image. One seemed to be too large, very likely a natural feature. The other, well, it might have been a rock or it might have been a boundary marker. Google Map’s boundary lines are often off by a few metres so it’s possible.

It certainly deserved a marker!


East to West



Lord Charles Somerset ruled as Cape Colony governor for several years, from 1814 to 1826. Naturally, his fingerprints appeared upon various features of the colonial landscape due to his influential position. For instance, a settlement grew near Cape Town beginning in 1822 and it became Somerset. A few years later, Lord Somerset founded a town farther to the east that he decided to name for himself. That might have caused some confusion so the original Somerset became Somerset West (map) and the new town became Somerset East (map). I’m not sure how much of a problem it really would have caused, actually. Quite a long distance separated them. Still, they both fell within the Cape Colony so I guess it made good sense to differentiate them.

After the 1994 split of Cape Province, Somerset West became part of Western Cape and Somerset East became part of Eastern Cape. They could both become Somerset without a prefix now if someone cared enough to change the names.


A Place with Every Direction


Sea of Gold
Sea of Gold: Match 24 – 2010 FIFA World Cup
Photo by Drew Douglas on Flickr (cc)

The name Rustenburg came from Afrikaans/Dutch, meaning the Town of Rest. It became one of the Boer’s earliest northern settlements. The town didn’t stay restful for long, however. Lands near Rustenburg became battlefields in 1899 during the Second Boer War. In more recent history, Rustenburg served as one of the host cities during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Several matches took place at Royal Bafokeng Stadium.

Why did any of that matter? Only because I discovered what might be the most directional place in the entire country. Someone could live on East Street (map) in Rustenburg Oos-Einde (East End), in the North West Province of South Africa. That made it East-East-North-West-South, for those of you keeping score at home.

Purpose
12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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