More Oddities from Independent Cities, Part 2

On March 26, 2017 · 7 Comments

Virginia’s independent cities continued to offer their peculiar geographic secrets. The earlier part of this series explored tendrils and quadripoints. However, other strange features hid within their twisted layouts. I turned my attention to enclaves and pinches next. Those unusual features probably came from heated negotiations between cities and counties during drawn-out annexation hearings. In Virginia, that involved a special court held specifically for that purpose, overseen by a three-judge panel.

Two separate cities included enclaves within their borders. Those little doughnut holes belonged to the counties that surrounded the cities.

Enclave within Fairfax City

Fairfax Enclave
Enclave within Fairfax City

Fairfax City became an independent city in 1961. The county surrounding it — also called Fairfax — extended much farther back in history. English colonies, including Virginia, still hugged North America’s Atlantic coastline when Fairfax County appeared in 1742. The county built a courthouse in a convenient, central location in 1799. That became a seat of local government and a little town grew around it. Eventually the town evolved into Fairfax City.

Fairfax County remained quiet and rural for the next several decades. However, it did not escape the Civil War unscathed. Virginia joined the Confederacy. Union troops crossed the Potomac River as the conflict began, capturing a chunk of Northern Virginia. This protected its capital city, Washington, DC. It also put Fairfax directly on the border between two hosile armies. Troops from both sides crisscrossed Fairfax repeatedly between 1861 and 1865, each occupying the courthouse at different times.

The war’s first death of a Confederate officer took place on the courthouse grounds in 1861 when Union troops shot Captain John Quincy Marr during a skirmish. Two years later, Confederate forces from the legendary Mosby’s Rangers paid a visit.

Mosby’s most famous raid occurred in March of 1863, inside Union lines at Fairfax County Courthouse, when he captured Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton. Mosby found Stoughton asleep in bed. Awakening the General with a slap to the rear, Mosby asked "Do you know Mosby, General?" The General replied "Yes! Have you got the rascal?" "No," said Mosby. "He’s got you!"

Obviously Fairfax County didn’t want to give up its historic courthouse when Fairfax City split from it. The two carved-out an enclave around the courthouse grounds that remained part of Fairfax County. I confirmed this arrangement on the Fairfax City zoning map.

Enclave within Manassas

Manassas Enclave
Enclave within Manassas

A little hole also sat within the independent city of Manassas, although it didn’t offer the same historical pedigree as the one in Fairfax. Nonetheless, it existed for a similar reason. I confirmed its existence in the Manassas zoning map and then I drilled-down to check it out. Manassas carved its territorial independence from Prince William County, however, the county courthouse already stood there. It became an enclave. The space contained the Prince William District Court, an Adult Detention Center, the Health Department, a senior center and some associated parking, all part of Prince William County, not Manassas.

Then I spotted something truly surprising. Somehow a single residence remained within the Prince William enclave. An entire neighborhood became part of Manassas except for 9210 Peabody Street for some unknown reason. Zillow dated its construction to 1965 and Manassas gained its independence in 1975, so the house definitely existed before the city changed its status.

The family residing there lived in Prince William County. However, they would need to cross completely through Manassas if they wanted to visit anyone else living in the county. On the other hand they wouldn’t have to cross a border if they ever got arrested. I’m sure they’d have other concerns in that situation anyway.

A Pinch to Grow an Inch

Grayson Pinch
Grayson County Pinch

A different oddity came into view in Galax. Here, a county line complicated a border. The line originally separated Grayson County from Carroll County. Galax grew right atop the line, which annexed land from both counties. The western side of Galax also contained a nob. It extended almost all the way to the county line and then stopped a tiny bit short. That prevented Galax from pinching-off a piece of Grayson. My eyeball estimate concluded that it fell just about seventy feet (21 metres) short of creating a Grayson exclave.

It was awfully nice of Galax to keep Grayson intact. Theoretically the farmer that lived inside that pinch remained connected to the rest of the county. However it didn’t really matter much because the only road access to the farm came from Galax. That made it a "practical exclave."

Bonus Avoidance

Staunton, Virginia

Check out the eastern border of Staunton along Interstate 81. I found several examples of Staunton drawing its border to avoid highway infrastructure maintenance. At the northern end where I-81 diverged from Staunton, the border turned northwest along Route 262 to avoid the cloverleaf. Near the midpoint, New Hope Road crossed above I-81 so the border did a zig-zag around the bridge. Approaching the southern end, the border avoided Route 250’s cloverleaf and then turned to the west, making sure to skip the Interstate 64 interchange. These was classic behaviors influenced by the anti-city provisions of the Byrd Road Act.

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.


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?

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.

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