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 definitely existed. I examined several sources and found it each time. Check it out:
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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?
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.
Previous posts discussed several reasons why the three smallest counties in the United States do not function autonomously and should not be considered counties except in name only. The focus of the current post is another unusual arrangement, the situation of independent cities. They function identically to most counties but in fact they are not. This is a rather common phenomenon in the Commonwealth of Virginia where there are 39 independent cities and where every municipality that incorporates as a city becomes independent. It is much more uncommon throughout the remainder of the United States where there are only 3 more independent cities: Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; and Carson City, Nevada. The U.S. Census Bureau treats all independent cities as “county equivalents.”
View Larger Map
The smallest of these independent cities is Falls Church, Virginia at a minuscule 1.99 square miles and with a population of about 10,000. Even the smallest of the pseudo-counties discussed in previous posts would dwarf this locale. Nonetheless, Falls Church has its own school system, police force, library system, taxation, water department, parks, street maintenance, building inspections, permits and licensing. It does have service arrangements in place with neighboring Fairfax and Arlington Counties in some instances but only for reasons of efficiency. It receives its authority directly from the State government and is not subordinate to any county.Falls Church serves its citizens in the same manner as any county. If it were a county it would be by far the smallest. However, by definition, an independent city is not a county so the search for the “smallest county” continues.Other Posts in this Series: