An independent city in the United States is a rare form of government. In broad general terms, the county is the tertiary or local level of government.(1) An independent city belongs to no county and derives its authority directly from the State. This is true even if it happens to be surrounded entirely by a neighboring county, a doughnut hole in an otherwise contiguous territory.
Most independent cities exist within the Commonwealth of Virginia, the only locality that uses this form of government commonly in the United States. This dates back to a quirk in the state constitution passed in 1871. Here, all localities that chose to incorporate as cities automatically gain independence from their surrounding counties. Indeed, 39 of the 42 independent U. S. cities are located in Virginia.(2)
This leaves people who count things in a quandary. The U.S. Census Bureau considers independent cities to be "county equivalents" for purposes of the decennial census and other statistical measures. That’s a pretty authoritative source and good enough for me. However, hobbyists seem to fall on both sides of the fence. Amateur radio enthusiasts, for example, consider a contact made within an independent city good enough to also claim the bordering county for its "Worked All Virginia" award. On the other hand, many county counters would consider county-equivalents to be completely separate and visit-worthy.
I am a relentless and thoroughly-addicted County Counter, having just recently passed the 1,000 mark. Something had been bothering me though. I was pretty sure I’d been to the independent city of Manassas Park, Virginia, but I wasn’t positive. I’ve been driving around this area for decades so surely I must have clipped it or traversed it at one point or another.
As I poured through the maps and traced the possible routes I would have taken over the years, I couldn’t find a logical basis to conclude that I’d actually completed a visit. I’m not sure why I was bothered. It’s not like there’s a great County Counting Council somewhere that’s going to erase a little square on my Life List and publicly humiliate me. This is all self-certifying. Nobody cares. Well, except for me and that’s personal. I felt compelled to spend an hour-and-a-half this morning going specifically, overtly to the city of Manassas Park to make sure it counted. Good lord I’m obsessive-compulsive, albeit in a fairly harmless way.
There’s something one needs to understand about traffic in Washington, DC‘s Virginia suburbs: it’s absolutely abysmal. People grow old waiting at traffic lights while every lane and direction gets its own arrow. It is suburban sprawl personified and a convincing case that local governments cannot pave their way out of a problem. I would have to travel deep into the teeth of some of the worst drives in the United States if I failed to consider the optimal timing. Travel here is not measured in distance, rather in pain avoided.
I had to calculate this just right. Daytime, any day, could turn into an hours-long slog of volume, construction, accident and signal delays. Nighttime would be better but then the photos wouldn’t be any good. I decided that the best time would be dawn on a weekend. I’d have to hit that brief window of light before the soccer moms in their green minivans began their weekly grocery runs. I would thread the needle with military precision.
I left home at 6:30 am as the first licks of hesitant light streaked across the sky. My plan worked brilliantly as I shot past the Beltway and cut down a secondary arterial with little traffic and green lights all the way. I approached the Prince William County border on a direct path towards Manassas Park.
Northern Virginia is part of Virginia territorially but it often feels out of alignment with its fellow brethren. Depending on which side of the ephemeral "border" one inhabits, that portion of Virginia outside of NOVa might be called either Real Virginia or ROVa (rest of Virginia). Someday I’ll write more about that but not today. I’ll simply note that I’ve lived on both sides of that fence and the answer is more nuanced than the way the absolutists on either side portray it. There isn’t even a clear definition of NOVa’s territory. One claim – among several – is that the break coincides with the Fairfax County / Prince William County line.
Perhaps I’m pandering a bit to a stereotype, hopefully not, but this sign greeted me as I crossed into Prince William County. I laughed at the possibility of buying guns, complaining about taxes and bringing home a bushel of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs all in one stop. In actuality this sign represented three separate businesses in the tiny strip mall shopping center, nonetheless, consider the possibilities! Alright, enough of that foolishness. I was on a mission and had to get back on task. The clock continued to tick and I started to notice a few more cars.
Mapquest shows county lines, including the adjoining independent cities of Manassas and Manassas Park delineated with dotted lines.
Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park
I was heading for the northern one, Manassas Park. I soon arrived without delays or troubles. If only it was always so easy.
I took the County Counting to an even further extreme, a bizarre offshoot known as County Highpointing, treating this independent city as a county-equivalent. That’s right, when crossing into the physical territory of the county simply isn’t enough, take it to its absolutely most absurd and irrational extent, and don’t count it until reaching the county highpoint. I figured I wasn’t going to ever go through this effort again so I’d make it count in the grandest way possible. Plus, I knew that the highpoint wasn’t going to be difficult to reach because an independent city is a lot smaller than almost any county. The city planners, being rational people, understood this too. Guess where they stuck the water tower? Yup, right near the highpoint. Elevation. Water. Gravity. Yes, a solid plan.
Well, the independent city of Manassas is just down the road another mile from Manassas Park, so why not capture that highpoint too? Bagged it. The actual highpoint is probably another block west near the intersection of Prescott Ave. and Quarry Rd. (there’s some debate on this) so I did a drive-by there too.
By now, just around 7:15 am, traffic was starting to back up at the lights. Thankfully I was approaching the exit for the Interstate highway.
As I considered the possibilities, I realized that the independent city of Fairfax City was right along my homeward route too. I could grab another highpoint with a minor detour.
And here it is.
The remainder of the trip went smoothly and I finished a little before 8:00 am. Perfect. Now I’ll leave the car in the driveway for the remainder of the weekend. Maybe I’ll walk up to the Apple Store and see if they have Snow Leopard in stock. I’ve had enough of the driving for awhile.
City of Falls Church
The City of Falls Church highpoint would also have been an easy catch, but I didn’t stop there.
After all, I captured this one previously. Where’s the water tower, you ask? I’m pretty sure they get their water from neighboring Arlington County, so no tower here.
(1) Also known as a Parish in Louisiana or a Borough in Alaska. There are variations in the levels of authority various States reserve for counties (little to practically nonexistent in New England for example), but let’s set those complexities aside for another time so we can focus on the independent cities instead.
(2) The other three are Baltimore, MD; St. Louis, MO; and Carson City, NV. These shouldn’t be confused with consolidated city-counties like San Francisco, CA or city-parishes like New Orleans, LA or city-boroughs like Anchorage, AK, where the city and county governments have been merged.