Why There Are No Towns or Counties in Southeastern Virginia

when counties were first created in 1634, two jurisdictions (Warwick River and Charles River counties) divided the Peninsula while South Hampton Roads was all part of Elizabeth City County
when counties were first created in 1634, two jurisdictions (Warwick River and Charles River counties) divided the Peninsula while South Hampton Roads was all part of Elizabeth City County
Source: Newberry Library, Historical Census Browser

The population in Southeastern Virginia grew rapidly with urbanization after World War II, as the Air Force expanded Langley Air Force Base and the Navy expanded multiple installations in the region. The rapid growth triggered local land use decisions to permit new subdivisions, new strip commercial centers along highways, and new suburban malls. Elected officials in once-rural counties that traditionally provided few government services were transformed into urban planners, choosing where to build new roads, schools, and water/sewer systems.

The stress of coping with rapid development revealed parochial thinking and rivalries between different jurisdictions. Occasional cooperation and partnerships between jurisdictions was matched by competition and conflict as well. Development on the edge of the cities of Newport News and Hampton erased once-clear boundaries between urban/rural jurisdictions, but proposals by cities to annex tax-generating areas of counties were viewed as "land grabs" by some county officials.

Other officials anticipated "build out" of small rural counties in Hampton Roads, as farmland and forests were converted to residential and retail uses. Long-term planning to provide services for new development would cost less and be easier to approve, if the fragmented jurisdictions took a regional approach. One simple way to eliminate jurisdictional conflicts was to merge different jurisdictions.

In 1952, Elizabeth City County and the Town of Phoebus merged into the city of Hampton. That same year, Warwick County converted to Warwick City, blocking any future efforts by the City of Newport News to annex county territory. In 1958, Warwick City and Newport News merged to form the city of Newport News. Consolidation streamlined the decision process and reduced costs for providing urban services, especially construction of schools, drinking water plants, and wastewater facilities.

jurisdictional boundaries on the tip of the Peninsula were more fragmented prior to the consolidation of the City of Hampton with Elizabeth City County/Town of Phoebus in 1952, and the separate merger of Warwick County with City of Newport News in 1958
jurisdictional boundaries on the tip of the Peninsula were more fragmented prior to the consolidation of the City of Hampton with Elizabeth City County/Town of Phoebus in 1952, and the separate merger of Warwick County with City of Newport News in 1958
Source: Newberry Library, Historical Census Browser

A more-complete consolidation of jurisdictions in Southeastern Virginia was blocked by political disputes over who would control the development of urban services, and who would pay for them. The multiple jurisdictions on the tip of the Peninsula could have consolidated into one city, but Hampton twice blocked consolidation with Newport News.

In 1950, Hampton voters rejected a 5-way merger with the City of Newport News, the Town of Phoebus, plus Elizabeth City and Warwick counties. In 1956, the proposed City of Hampton Roads (or "Port City") would have consolidated Warwick County, the City of Newport News, and the recently-expanded City of Hampton (which had merged four years earlier with the Town of Phoebus and Elizabeth City County).

After the voters in Hampton narrowly rejected the 1956 proposal, Warwick and Newport News merged two years later. That 1958 merger combined into one jurisdiction the shipbuilding job center of Newport News with the housing of the shipyard workers in Warwick County - and left Hampton as a separate city.1

In addition to Newport News and Hampton, Poquoson is the third independent city on the eastern edge of the Peninsula. Poquoson became a separate town within York County in 1952, and an independent city in 1975.

Status as a town allowed Poquoson to retain its high school. The only high school in York County was established there in 1910, but by 1952 the county was proposing to build a new high school in a more-central location. Creating a separate town with its own school system preserved a high school in Poquoson, and also allowed Poquoson to manage the desegregation process. Today, there is still a very clear distinction in the population of Poquoson vs. the rest of the political jurisdictions in southeastern Virginia.2

Jurisdiction"White alone"
(2010 Census)
City of Poquoson95%
York County77%
City of Newport News49%
City of Hampton43%

Poquoson split from York County and became an independent city in 1975
Poquoson split from York County and became an independent city in 1975
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

South of the James River, Norfolk was the dominant city through the 1940's. The population of Norfolk of Norfolk grew from 144,332 to 213,513 between 1940 and 1950, but expansion of the city boundaries was opposed by its neighbors.3

Rural areas surrounding Norfolk were not inclined to join into voluntary metropolitan partnerships. Rural county residents would have to contribute extra taxes for development of urban services, which would be concentrated around the growing population center of the city of Norfolk rather than benefit most residents.

pattern of Norfolk's growth through annexations, 1845-1959
pattern of Norfolk's growth through annexations, 1845-1959
Source: City of Norfolk Map Gallery

After all, most of the voters who would benefit from increased urban services would vote in the city of Norfolk, not in the surrounding counties. Norfolk had almost twice the population of the surrounding counties in 1950 - only 42,277 people lived in Princess Anne County (now the city of Virginia Beach) and 110,371 people lived in the City of South Norfolk and Norfolk County (now combined into the City of Chesapeake).4

Norfolk city officials sought to annex land from adjacent counties. Annexation would increase the city's tax base, since real estate and property taxes from the annexed land would flow into the city's bank account and finance additional services. The city was especially interested in annexing commercial property that had already been developed.

Shopping districts and office buildings generate taxes, but do not require a city to offer many services. In particular, commercial property does not require schools for students...

Surrounding counties saw annexation by the city of Norfolk as a threat. After annexation, the counties would end up with less tax revenue to support their schools and other county services. If Norfolk succeeded in annexing commercial property, then elected officials in the counties would have to raise taxes of the remaining residents to finance existing services and to deliver on campaign promises to offer additional services.

Norfolk did annex a portion of Princess Anne County in 1955, and again in 1959. The surrounding counties responded by incorporating as independent cities, a status which made them immune to any additional annexations by Norfolk. In 1963, the city of South Norfolk and Norfolk County merged to create the City of Chesapeake, and Princess Anne County merged with the town of Virginia Beach to form the City of Virginia Beach (the largest city in Virginia in population).

As independent cities, they were immune to annexation by Norfolk. The power to resist annexation gave Virginia Beach leverage when Norfolk proposed changes in land use along the boundary. For example, in 2014 Norfolk planned to convert the city-owned Lake Wright Golf Course into an outlet mall, but 38 acres of land owned by the city were located within the jurisdiction of Virginia Beach. Norfolk was obliged to negotiate a rezoning of its land by Virginia Beach officials, who sought to get Norfolk to build road improvements before rezoning land to allow a parking lot.5

Norfolk was forced to negotiate with Virginia Beach as a co-equal city, in order to convert the Lake Wright Golf Course south of the airport into the Simon Premium Outlet Park
Norfolk was forced to negotiate with Virginia Beach as a co-equal city, in order to convert the Lake Wright Golf Course south of the airport into the Simon Premium Outlet Park
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

in 1907, Norfolk was a thriving port city and Princess Anne County was a rural farm area (with a small beach resort on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline)
in 1907, Norfolk was a thriving port city and Princess Anne County was a rural farm area (with a small beach resort on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline)
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection - Virginia Historical Topographic Maps, Norfolk

Urbanization continued to spread in Southeastern Virginia throughout the 1960's. In 1972, Nansemond County converted into the city of Nansemond, and in 1974 it merged into the City of Suffolk.

As a result, all political jurisdictions in Southeastern Virginia are independent cities; there are no counties remaining. Since towns exist only within counties, there are no towns in Southeastern Virginia now because all the counties in that corner of Virginia have converted into cities.

Virginia Counties That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

Virginia Cities That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

since 1960, land once classified as counties (yellow) has shifted to city status as the independent city of South Norfolk consolidated with Norfolk County to form the City of Chesapeake, the independent city of Virginia Beach consolidated with Princess Anne County to form the City of Virginia Beach, and Nansemond County converted into the City of Suffolk
since 1960, land once classified as counties (yellow) has shifted to city status as the independent city of South Norfolk consolidated with Norfolk County to form the City of Chesapeake, the independent city of Virginia Beach consolidated with Princess Anne County to form the City of Virginia Beach, and Nansemond County converted into the City of Suffolk
Source: Newberry Library, Historical Census Browser

References

1. "Cities' Merger Considered, Rejected," Newport News Daily Press, January 30, 1992, http://articles.dailypress.com/1992-01-30/news/9201300064_1_port-city-consolidation-issue-majority-of-city-council (last checked April 19, 2014)
2. "City of Poquoson 2008-2028 Comprehensive Plan," City of Poquoson, July 2008 p.1-8, http://poquoson-va.gov/sites/default/files/CompPlan03.22.10.pdf; "State & County QuickFacts," Bureau of Census, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/51000.html (last checked April 20, 2014)
3. "Historical Census Browser," University of Virginia, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/ (last checked March 1, 2014)
4. "Historical Census Browser," University of Virginia, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/ (last checked March 1, 2014)
5. "Outlet mall plan hits roadblock as Beach resists Norfolk’s plan for street changes," Hampton Roads Business Journal, February 6, 2014, http://insidebiz.com/node/375811 (last checked March 1, 2014)

Norfolk is hemmed in today by incorporated cities on all sides, and has no opportunity to expand by annexing land from an adjacent county
Norfolk is hemmed in today by incorporated cities on all sides, and has no opportunity to expand by annexing land from an adjacent county
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper


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