The Chunk That Got Away

On December 13, 2012 · 2 Comments

Social Circle, Georgia would seem to hit all of the highpoints necessary for coverage on Twelve Mile Circle. It has an odd name (Social Circle?). It has the word "circle" in its title just like the humble 12MC itself. It is one of those unusual Georgia towns with an actual circular shape, with a radius of two miles (3.2 km) in this instance. It’s a geo-oddity trifecta. And yet… and yet… those don’t come close to being the most remarkable recent feature of the ever-fascinating Social Circle.

View Larger Map

Let’s deal with the name so we can sweep that aside and focus on the good stuff. Nobody really knows why Social Circle came to be known as Social Circle. The State of Georgia said basically the same thing although with a few more words and a bit more tactfully:

Incorporated as a city in 1904, Social Circle offers two possibilities for its naming. One local legend has it that a traveler, much impressed by the townspeople’s kindness, remarked in passing, “This sure is a social circle?!” Another, less colorful, version of the tale has it that a new resident proposed his old village’s name.

The USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) lists only a single populated place called Social Circle — this one in Georgia — so let’s assume a previously-named village no longer exists or the current one was indeed filled with bands of friendly people a century ago. No matter. Let’s move along and take a look at the shape of Social Circle today.

View Social Circle Annex in a larger map

The map displays some complexity so let me walk through it.

  • Social Circle, as it largely exists today (2012), is the blue-shaded area.
  • The heavy black line is the Walton County boundary. Walton County is north of the line. Newton County is southwest and Morgan County is southeast. All but a small chunk of Social Circle falls within Walton County.
  • The area that caused the big fight is approximated by the light green space. I’m not sure those are the exact boundaries although they should cover most of it.

Each of these features will figure into the story which I stumbled across quite by accident. I noticed the Social Circle map posted on the city website differed from Google Maps. Essentially Google included a dangling appendage hanging towards the southeast. It turned out that the city posted an outdated map. If one drilled-down further into their website the dangling appendage appeared on their accurate 2011 zoning map.

I started searching for "Social Circle annexation" and similar phrases to see if I could find an explanation. I uncovered mounds of information although it was all amazingly convoluted. It took me awhile to figure out that the dispute centered on the light-green area, not the dangle. I still don’t know how the dangle came into existence other than Social Circle apparently annexed the area and nobody complained which is remarkable as you’ll learn if you keep reading.

Social Circle based its ongoing viability on moving its border continuously southward towards Interstate 20, with Route 11 as a gateway, like its own miniature Manifest Destiny. The town began to annex rather aggressively in that direction starting right around 2006. This generated a tremendous amount of local news coverage, with a nice timeline summary published in the Newton Citizen in a two-part article, on March, 24, 2010 and March 25, 2010. Here’s what happened as best as I could piece the facts together:

  • Several land owners requested that 1,200 acres in Newton County (the other side of the black line on the map) be annexed into Social Circle in 2006. Upon annexation the land would then be zoned for a mixed-use business park.
  • Newton County objected to the incursion, mediation failed to provide a solution and Newton County sued Social Circle.
  • There were errors in the annexation so Social Circle repealed it in March 2008 and the lawsuit dropped.
  • One of the land owners requested annexation again in July 2008. He wanted to build a motorsports complex with a drag strip. The other landowners joined the request in 2009.
  • Social Circle expanded again.
  • The thought of a motorsports complex and a drag strip upset a lot of local residents who opposed the new annexation. Newton County wasn’t thrilled either.
  • Social Circle de-annexed the properties again in May 2010 in the face of fierce opposition. Once more there was a technical flaw (a one-acre parcel was left out of the description).
  • Drag racing dreams were crushed.

Meanwhile, state legislators representing Newton and other nearby counties managed to shepherd a number of bills into law to restrict towns from annexing land on the other side of a county line. As noted in the Morgan County Citizen,

The genesis of House Bill 2 is in the annexation several years ago of some 1,150 acres of Newton County land by the City of Social Circle. Social Circle, which is in Walton County, faced significant objections from unincorporated residents, and subsequently went through several non-binding mediation exercises. Ultimately, however, current law placed few stumbling blocks in the way of incorporation… The new law may at least slow down land speculators who purchase land, push annexations through a municipality, then sell the land for an elevated price.

The city attempted to annex a completely different property in April 2012. That fell through too for (wait for it…) technical reasons.

Someone must be trying to tell them something.

Strip Annexation in Arizona

On September 25, 2011 · 0 Comments

Loyal reader Scott sent me a message recently in the context of towns studded with enclaves outside of their jurisdiction, which I sometimes mention on Twelve Mile Circle (e.g., Mmm… Doughnut and the Gaithersburg Doughnut Hole). He wished to bring an even more interesting situation to my attention, the concept of Strip Annexation as practiced in Arizona. The process resulted in towns with massive county enclaves embedded within them, as towns rushed to create thin ribbons of land snaking through the desert that looped back upon themselves.

Scott thought this might be a good story idea for 12MC. I did too but I wondered if I would be able to compile enough information to do it justice. Fortunately I stumbled upon "Border Wars: Tax Revenues, Annexation, and Urban Growth in Phoenix" by Carol E. Heim of the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Department of Economics. The article first appeared in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 2006, and is available online now. It’s a fascinating account of boundary changes in the Phoenix metropolitan area including the strip annexation phenomenon.

View Larger Map

Look at a map today and the Phoenix area appears nicely built-out as it marches into the desert. Infill development is a recent phenomenon. Growth and expansion began in earnest in the 1950’s, as detailed by Heim. Expanding towns started bumping into each by the 1960’s as they grew and jostled for position. Things turned ugly in the 1970’s, an era marked by a hostile strategy of "Pre-emptive Strip Annexation."

Urban and suburban planners use strip annexation as a tool to support growth. Literally, a town or city claims a narrow ribbon of land that connects the main body of a municipality to an otherwise non-contiguous area considered economically desirable. The strip can be extremely narrow, even as slim as the width of a single road. Sometimes it’s also called flagpole annexation with the target area appearing as the flag waving on its shoestring pole. It’s not always pretty. The town can develop an odd octopus shape with tendrils twisting and extending into the countryside when done repeatedly.

Courts generally uphold the practice where it’s not explicitly discouraged or prohibited by local law, assuming it establishes a contiguous strip. The practice isn’t unique to Arizona either — it connects Chicago and Denver to their airports for example — however what makes it noteworthy near Phoenix is the severely dysfunctional form it took as the metropolitan area evolved.

Residents continued to pour into Arizona during the latter half of the 20th Century, with many settling in Maricopa County and the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix expanded its borders frequently to harness growth. The little towns around it began to shudder. They faced a genuine possibility of either being sucked into Phoenix or being so completely surrounded and constricted that they would wither on the vine.

The laws of the time provided a novel loophole. One town couldn’t leapfrog over the area of another town, no matter how small the jump. Municipalities could effectively block the territorial aspirations of their neighbors with the thinnest strips of land imaginable since annexations had to be contiguous. That’s exactly what happened, like a giant chess game of moves and counter-moves by towns to gain and block. Towns created narrow protective strips completely around themselves, miles into the desert, to stave off their enemies and preserve enclaves for their own future expansion, like moats surrounding castles.

It was a great bargain for the municipalities. They didn’t have to provide government services to the people trapped inside a county enclave created by strip annexation but they could and did incorporate parcels that developed within their exclusive buffers over time. They gained the ability to cherry pick: Maricopa County got stuck with the bill for providing road infrastructure, police and fire protection, and all the services required of widely-scattered citizens in the county island. Meanwhile towns could incorporate any attractive parcels within the island at a later date as affluent subdivisions and shopping centers emerged (while ignoring the less-affluent), then reap resulting residential and sales tax windfalls. As with many things in life, it was about the money, in this case tax revenues.

Heim provided some excellent maps and tables explaining the growth in much greater detail. From Table 1 of that source, consider some of the following increases in square mileage (including county islands created by strip annexation) between 1950 and 2005:

  • Phoenix: 16.09 to 515.10
  • Mesa: 5.82 to 131.07
  • Buckeye: 0.83 to 239.79
  • Goodyear: 0.31 to 118.42
  • Scottsdale: 0.00 to 184.43
  • Peoria: 0.00 to 177.58

It reached a point of complete ridiculousness, finally brought to the forefront when the town of Gilbert strip annexed a sizable territory to check a possible expansion by Chandler in 1974. That’s not to say that Gilbert did anything different than several other towns in the Valley of the Sun, just that it served as a catalyst for an eventual demise of the practice. It was the largest preemptive strip annexation up until that time and it became a proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

1975 Strip Annexation in Gilbert Arizona
SOURCE: Arizona Republic, Jan. 19, 1975, via "Border Wars: Tax Revenues, Annexation, and Urban Growth in Phoenix"

One would never realize that Gilbert sparked the demise of strip annexation in Arizona through its particularly brazen maneuver from the revisionist history presented on its website though:

Gilbert began to take its current shape during the 1970s when the Town Council approved a strip annexation that encompassed 53 square miles of county land. Although the population was only 1,971 in 1970 the Council realized that Gilbert would eventually grow and develop much like the neighboring communities of Tempe, Mesa, and Chandler. This proved to be a farsighted decision as Gilbert positioned itself for growth in the 1980s and beyond.

A noble farsighted decision, then? Notice the 1975 map from the Arizona Republic reproduced above. Consider the strip was between 20 and 50 feet wide with a few select nodules of significant acreage. The major nob filled most of the area bound by W. Warner, S. Gilbert, W. Ray and S. Cooper Streets. Lets take a closer look at that area today:

View Larger Map

Notice further that if one compares the Arizona Republic Map with the current Google Map that a predominance of the shaded area is filled today by Dave Brown Country Estates and Dave Brown Lamoreaux Farms. That’s certainly not a coincidence. The Arizona law at the time said that owners representing at least 51% of the assessed land value had to consent to the annexation. Gilbert’s strip encompassed knobs of supporters while extending narrow lines through land owned by non-supporters to effectively dilute their lack of consent. I will speculate but do not have evidence that the developer(s) of Dave Brown’s properties likely benefited handsomely when their desert lands suddenly became part of Gilbert.

Two couples owned land bisected by the strip and opposed its annexation, leading to a landmark legal case Glick v. Town of Gilbert heard by the Court of Appeals of Arizona in 1979. The owners raised a number of issued pertaining to fairness including the underhanded method used to determine consent and the unfavorable situation of owners stuck in the county island now encircled by the narrow annexation. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement of a trial court and ruled, "the alleged deficiencies raised by appellants to be insufficient to affect the validity of the ordinance." In other words, the actions of the Town of Gilbert may have been greedy and deceitful but they were perfectly legal.

Gilbert won the case but it became a glaring example of overreach that contributed to new legislation. Arizona prohibited strip annexation the following year, 1980. The State legislated further reforms that complicated future annexation in general in 1986. That didn’t halt annexation by Arizona towns but it slowed them down and prevented the more glaring instances.

Annexation History in Buckeye Arizona
SOURCE: Town of Buckeye, Arizona – GIS (Annexed Areas / Town Boundary)

The legacy of strip annexation remains visible in numerous Phoenix-area towns today even though the practice has been abandoned for more than thirty years. Past annexations remained valid and towns slowly filled the county islands they created in the 1970’s. The Town of Buckeye provides an interesting case in point as it selectively incorporated parcels throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s. This left Buckeye and similar towns shaped by strip annexation as if they were more akin to Swiss Cheese.

Thanks again to Scott for the great idea. I can’t always guarantee I’ll find enough information to create an article, but I always enjoy hearing suggestions from readers.

Totally Unrelated

Greater Greater Washington featured a video of all 50 state-named avenues as visited by bicycle. It’s a fun little video — check it out!


Denver’s Freaky Appendage

On June 8, 2010 · 5 Comments

Take a look at the shape of Denver, Colorado and you’ll notice an unusual appendage branching out from its northeast corner. Denver represents one of those infrequent hybrid situations where a city and a county combine to form a single entity within a common border. As a consequence, sometimes Denver acts like a city and sometimes it acts like a county and that can lead to interesting impacts on the local geography.

Neighborhood Map of Denver Colorado
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version

These are the neighborhoods of Denver, and I apologize for the poor rendering presented in this image. I had to reduce it down to size to fit within the margins of the blog. Feel free to open the image in another window or link to the source at Wikimedia to see the actual size with additional clarity. Regardless, the overall outline is more important for my ramblings this evening, and it’s easy enough to notice the appendage in question at the upper-right. The purpose of the appendage presents itself readily: it surrounds Denver International Airport.

Terminal at Denver International Airport

I’m in Denver this week as you may have already guessed, and this is the terminal at Denver International Airport, squarely within the boundaries of the combined Denver City/County. Adams County surrounds the airport on all sides except for a corridor that connects the facility with the remainder of Denver.

The land occupied by the airport used to be part of Adams County. It’s annexation to Denver happened only recently. Denver’s split city/county personality favors its city side when it comes to expansion plans. They had a nasty habit of grabbing land from surrounding counties until the State of Colorado stepped in. They passed legislation that blocked further expansion without approval from voters in the jurisdiction that stood to lose acreage. Even that didn’t halt expansion entirely.

The Colorado General Assembly authorized a vote in 1987 that would transfer the airport land to Denver if approved. The voters of Adams County approved it in 1988, and Denver City/County did likewise in 1989. Title passed to Denver and its territorial dimensions increased by 45 square miles. Very few county boundary changes happen in the Lower 48 United States anymore so count this among the rare instances, with quite a remarkable scale.

I’ve not been able to find a good explanation for why the voters of Adams County were amenable to ceding a big chunk of their territory. I can only find odd conspiracy theories on the Internet (along with a good debunking). If anyone knows the full story, please let me know in the comments section, below. I’m going to guess that maybe Adams County thought it would be a tax drain or a pain to operate. I’m surprised the story isn’t more readily apparent since it’s practically a current event but maybe it’s simply drowned out by the background noise of the conspiracy chatter. Adams County does have a recent history of losing territory though. It also lost a small parcel during the formation of Broomfield County in 2001. Maybe it’s just unlucky.

There is an additional odd feature: great pains were taken to append the airport to Denver’s territory but the corridor isn’t contiguous with the major road infrastructure. I think it might be possible theoretically to get from downtown Denver to the airport without ever leaving Denver City/County but it would involve neighborhood streets. The most direct route leaves Denver and clips Adams Co., as confirmed by road signage I noticed along the route yesterday afternoon.

I have a couple of other Denver geo-oddities in mind, and I hope that I can hit at least one of them this week. As usual, I have only a brief window in the evening after meetings that last the entire day. We’ll see how it goes.

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