Independent Cities (the Water Tower Tour)

On August 29, 2009 · 11 Comments

The Background

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.

The Setup

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.

The Journey

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.

You are Entering the "Real" Virginia

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.

Highest Elevation in Manassas Park

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.

Highest Elevation in Manassas

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.

Fairfax City

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.

Highest Elevation in Fairfax City

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.

The Epilogue

City of Falls Church

The City of Falls Church highpoint would also have been an easy catch, but I didn’t stop there.

Highest Elevation in Falls Church City

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.

On August 29, 2009 · 11 Comments

11 Responses to “Independent Cities (the Water Tower Tour)”

  1. Greg says:

    The Clarendon Apple Store, by chance? I used to talk there from Courthouse during my time in the area. You might know this: Arlington County has no municipalities within it. Why? I’ve heard it has something to do with a state law regarding population density, but it makes no logical sense to me. Any wisdom on the topic?

    • The Clarendon Apple Store, indeed. Snow Leopard loaded right up, it’s faster, and it takes up something like 15 Gig less space on the hard drive. I’m wondering how folks running a Microsoft OS will fare with the Windows 7 upgrade? 🙂

      Yeh, I’ve heard the same thing about the special Virginia law, but I’ve never seen an actual source citation or read the text of it (any lawyers out there should feel free to hunt it down and make it known). I think it may be due more to its diminutive size, even if such a law exists. Seriously you can’t drive more than a few minutes in any direction without crossing one of its borders. There’s simply no room for any municipalities and it wouldn’t make any sense to have them because at 26 square miles, Arlington is basically already its own municipality – it just happens to also be a county because of the whole retrocession thing when Virginia took its land back.

      • Fritz Keppler says:

        And one reason for remaining a County (there was some mild pressure back in the 70’s from the Commonwealth to become a city) is that the Commonwealth has to pay for certain services (such as state highway maintenance) that a City would be responsible for, if it were a city.

  2. mike says:

    Philadelphia is similar also.

    The city merged with the county in 1952 and dissolved the county functions. But, it still exists as a county within Pennsylvania.

    Interestingly enough, Philadelphia is one of the few municipal governments in PA that has a Home Rule structure, rather than a commissioner or supervisor structure.

  3. Greg says:

    NYC, as I recall, is similar to Philly, though on a larger scale, in that it all-but-dissolved FIVE New York counties. To my knowledge, the only role the counties play in semi-normal life is that criminal prosecution takes place in the name of each county. So Law and Order focuses on the New York County DA, not the Manhattan one, though they’re the same area. (Correct me if wrong, &c.)

    • Regarding New York City: I took a look at this in the early days of the blog. It’s indeed an odd and unique situation, something known as a sui generis arrangement.

    • Fritz Keppler says:

      I remember an episode in the original Law & Order series in which the Sam Waterston character promised immunity from prosecution in New York County in exchange for testimony, though the crime was committed in Kings County (Brooklyn). When I heard that I looked at my partner and we both smiled knowingly. The criminal bought it and was astonished when the Kings County prosecutor got him for the crime at the end of the episode.

  4. It would be a lot more of an adventure to hit the Carson City highpoint. Snow Valley Peak, 9,214 feet.

    • Snow Valley Peak looks like a wonderful place, but I’m all about the easy highpointing so I’ll probably leave this one to the more adventurous among us. But Scott brings up an interesting point and a great trivia question: What is the highest natural elevation in any independent city in the United States? – with the answer of course being 9,214 feet at Snow Valley Peak in Carson City.

      What about the opposite question? What is the lowest natural elevation in any independent city in the United States? I’d say it’s probably a tie between all of the Virginia independent cities at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (e.g., Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach) which are probably all at sea level. If I had to pick one I’d stick with Virginia Beach which is right on the Atlantic Ocean. I can safely say I’ve bagged this lowpoint (who knew!). Alexandria, VA and the City of Baltimore, MD probably come in close seconds. I can’t imagine their waterfronts are much above sea level given their placement on on tidal rivers along the bay. Washington, DC, just across the river from Alexandria, has a lowest elevation listed at between zero and one foot.

  5. ann reed says:

    for a long time, i’ve been staring at a water tower from my balcony in Ballston. it faces north but i have not been able to locate the water tower by driving around in what would seem to be the correct direction. i called the arlington county hydrologist’s office to inquire but the woman who answered said sweetly “we do not give out that information, for security reasons”. it seemed odd to me because it would seem impossible to keep their presence secret. do you know how i might be able to find this tall structure ? thanks if you can help to dispell this obsession. ann reed, arlington

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