Town and City Boundaries - and Annexation

pattern of Richmond's growth through annexations, 1810-1970
pattern of Richmond's growth through annexations, 1810-1970
Source: City of Richmond, Annexation History Map

The revolution in 1775 established that the colony of Virginia was independent from England. A state constitution was adopted by the Fifth Revolutionary Convention in 1776, the last of the conventions that served between the end of the House of Burgesses in 1774 and the establishment of the General Assembly in 1776.

That 1776 state constitution centralized all political power in the state government as the representative of the people. The House of Burgesses had chartered local municipal governments, and the General Assembly continued to establish new counties and cities as subunits of the state government, but the power of "we the people" has never flowed up from the people to a simple hierarchy of local government, then state government, and finally to the Federal governments. All local government jurisdictions in Virginia (cities, counties, and towns) were "creatures of the state," created by the colonial/state legislature. Since 1776, the state has always held supreme power over local government.

Philosophers may consider that all power belongs first to the people, and therefore smaller units of government - Home Owner Associations (HOA's), neighborhood advisory committees, etc. - serve as the building blocks of democracy. However, political authority starts at the state level, not at the local level, in Virginia. Authority to make decisions on zoning, road locations, and taxes will trickle down to the cities, counties, towns, and regional agencies only when the state legislature grants authority via charters to local governments and regional organizations.

Reinforcing the point that local governments are subordinate to state authority, the Virginia Supreme Court has adopted the Dillon Rule, based on the philosophy of Judge Dillon in Iowa. He considered local government to be easier to corrupt than state government, so it was wiser to place power in the state rather than local officials.

Virginia law, as interpreted under the Dillon Rule, severely limits the freedom of local governments. The Virginia Supreme Court requires that the General Assembly make a clear delegation of specific authority to local governments, before those governments are empowered to act. For example, the legislature has refused to authorize counties/cities to pass an Adequate Public Facilities ordinance. Some counties/cities may desire to limit development on private property until schools, roads, parks, and other public services meet a local standard of "adequate," to minimize new traffic congestion and overcrowded schools - but the General Assembly has refused to empower local governments to impose such restrictions.

The General Assembly controls the boundaries of towns and cities (after all, the state legislature created those boundaries in the first place). Virginia towns and cities exist only as subdivisions of the state, not through any independent compact with "the people." The first three local government charters were granted by the colonial General Assembly to Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk (which was initially called a "borough"). Each charter was a unique document reflecting the circumstances of each community.

The distinction between city and town was not significant, except in terms of civic pride, until after the Civil War and a new state constitution was adopted in 1869 under the leadership of Judge Underwood. By the 1902 Constitution, in a confusing evolution of case law and legislative practice rather than by any single act of the General Assembly, Virginia cities had become politically independent from surrounding counties.

Towns have remained subunits of counties, but after 1902 cities have clearly been separate jurisdictions. As a result, the distinction between city and town is important now. (Until additional revisions in the state constitution in 1970, there was also a distinction between "first class" cities with 10,000 people and above vs. "second class" cities with a minimum of just 5,000 people.)

Expanding the boundaries of a town does not remove voters or property tax base from a county. A town boundary shift does redirect certain taxes (automobile registration, consumer utility taxes, and the local portion of sales taxes) from the county to just the town. Towns are also authorized to impose excise taxes on cigarettes, admissions, meals, and motel rooms, while counties must obtain specific authority from the General Assembly or voter approval in a referendum before levying those taxes.1

Incorporating an area into a city means that residents in the newly-annexed area no longer vote for county officials. New city residents no longer pay any county taxes either. Residential areas typically require more funding for services (primarily schools) than the residential areas generate in taxes.

the Town of Blacksburg is a distinct political jurisdiction, but town residents are also residents of Montgomery County and vote/pay taxes in both jurisdictions
the Town of Blacksburg is a distinct political jurisdiction, but town residents are also residents of Montgomery County and vote/pay taxes in both jurisdictions
Source: Montgomery County, iGIS Map Portal

Cities often draw annexation boundaries to minimize the acquisition of new residents but maximize the acquisition of manufacturing facilities and shopping centers. Counties resist efforts by cities to annex industrial and commercial properties, which generate more revenue in property, sales, and machine tools taxes than those properties require in services.

Cities can annex parts of a county adjacent to the city, changing the status of residents and property owners from county to city. It is a one-way process; counties can not annex parts of cities, but counties can try to block annexation to maintain existing county boundaries. Not surprisingly, cities and counties compete to control the property taxes and votes from the periphery of cities, paying lawyers to fight boundary changes in complicated court proceedings.

Cities can annex all or part of towns and counties, but cities can not annex land from other cities. Bitter fights between jurisdictions in southeastern Virginia after World War II led to incorporation of new cities in Hampton Roads, primarily in order to block Norfolk from expanding.

One annexation fight between Richmond-Chesterfield County was driven by an unusual objective: to increase a specific class of residents within city boundaries, and to decrease the percentage of black residents.

The initial boundaries of Richmond were surveyed in 1737, with 32 squares divided into 4 lots each. The portion of the city between 17th-25th streets, and between Broad-Clay streets, reflects the original core. Since then, 11 annexations and a merger with the City of Manchester in 1911 expanded the size of the city.

After 1942, however, only one annexation by Richmond was successful. After civil rights legislation in the 1960's led to greater political activity among minority-race voters, the traditional political leadership in Richmond was overturned. Richmond's efforts to annex parts of Henrico County and then Chesterfield County were designed in part to acquire enough "leadership-type white people" to block the city from ending up under the political control of black residents.

The 1970 annexation of 47,000 residents from Chesterfield County dropped Richmond's percentage of black residents from 52% to 42%, and added white students to a school system stressed by conflicts over desegregation. The acrimony associated with that 1970 decision led to the General Assembly's moratorium on involuntary annexations of county territory by cities, implemented by legislation passed in 1987 and since extended.2

After cities were blocked from expanding, they lost their basic tool for increasing the tax base, annexing commercial property in the suburbs. The General Assembly's moratorium on annexation left cities with just two bad options: cutting services, or increasing taxes. Either approach would drive more businesses outside of the city boundaries, so in 1988 the state legislature offered a third choice. Cities were allowed to convert to town status. Abandoning independent city status and becoming part of a county allowed city official to transfer responsibilities for many government services (especially schools) to the county.3

Richmond's 1970 annexation of a substantial portion of Chesterfield County, though less than originally proposed, led to the General Assembly's ban five years later on annexations by cities
Richmond's 1970 annexation of a substantial portion of Chesterfield County, though less than originally proposed, led to the General Assembly's ban five years later on annexations by cities
Source: Chesterfield County "Countdown to Jamestown," 1970 Annexation: Chiseling the Horner-Bagley Line

In 2013, the city of Bristol and Washington County threatened lawsuits over the city's plans for commercial development at Exit 5 on I-81. The city purchased 140 acres to create "The Falls" project, with over one million total square feet of mixed use commercial/retail/motel development. The Falls was financed in part with $25 million in general obligation bonds borrowed by the city (and later by additional revenue bonds). It was designed to attract a new Cabela's sporting goods store, a Sheetz convenience store, and various restaurants.

Bristol could invest up to $40 million to develop "The Falls" because Virginia's General Assembly had passed a law in 2012 to allow jurisdictions to retain the State of Virginia's portion of sales tax revenues from a development of regional impact. The Falls had to create 2,000 jobs, generate $5 million in new annual tax revenues, and attract 1 million visitors a year in order for the city of Bristol to use the sales tax revenue that normally would go to the state.4

Normally, a project with such regional economic impact would have political support from all nearby jurisdictions, because benefits would spill over boundaries as 2,000 workers spent their earnings. Washington County was specifically concerned that a Lowe's home improvement warehouse located at Exit 7 in the county would move two miles down the interstate to Exit 5, in order to open a larger store and attract additional customers coming to "The Falls." The political complication: the special state law that allowed Bristol to retain state sales taxes would facilitate a move by Lowe's (and then perhaps Walmart and Sam’s Club at the same location) from Washington County into the City of Bristol.

If sales and property taxes associated with Lowe's shifted from Washington County to the city, then Bristol rather than Washington County would receive the local 1% of the sales tax generated by that store. Washington County Board of Supervisors would need to raise their property tax rate by a penny ($0.01/$100) in order to maintain the tax revenues required for schools, fire/police, and other public services in the county. County property taxes in 2012 were $0.63 per $100 of fair market value, so the loss of one store would force the seven elected county supervisors to raise taxes by 1.5% or cut county services - never an attractive choice for elected officials.

If Walmart and Sam’s Club, as well as Lowes, migrated from Exit 7 in Washington County to Exit 5 in the City of Bristol, the county would lose over 70% of its annual sales tax revenue. To resolve the dispute, Bristol agreed to pay the county the lost taxes (up to $350,000/year) after Lowe's moved. The city also agreed to compensate the county so boundary-shifting moves by large retailers in the next 15 years would be revenue-neutral, and the county agreed to share tax revenue from future development on a parcel that was next to the city-county border at Exit 7.5

in 1963, before I-81 was built, Route 11 was the main north-south road through Bristol
in 1963, before I-81 was built, Route 11 was the main north-south road through Bristol
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS) Johnson City 1x2 grid (1963)

The conflict between city/county was mirrored by competition between the states; Washington County competes with both Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee. Before Washington County helped finance "The Falls" project in Virginia, the Tennessee version of Bristol (downtown Bristol is divided by the Tennessee/Virginia state line) sold $25 million in bonds to finance the 250-acre Pinnacles development in Tennessee. That commercial development, south of the state line at Exit 74 on I-81, was anchored by Bass Pro Shops, a competitor of Cabela's. Both Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's used competition between government jurisdictions to get subsidies for their private companies.6

Lobbyists for the Pinnacles project in Tennessee maneuvered at the 2014 Virginia General Assembly to block legislation that would facilitate financing the rival project, The Falls at Exit 5 in Washington County. In response, the Bristol, Virginia City Council passed a resolution to official complain to its counterpart in Tennessee about the "unwarranted aggression," saying:7

WHEREAS, the City of Bristol Virginia wishes to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with Bristol Tennessee long into the future; and
WHEREAS, the two cities have always been able to compete for business and industry in a professional and respectful manner, forever cognizant that we are truly one city only divided by a state boundary; and
WHEREAS, the developers of The Pinnacle Project in Bristol Tennessee employed no less than six (6) lobbyists and/or lawyers... in an attempt to defeat legislation needed for the continuation of The Falls Project in Bristol Virginia; and...
WHEREAS, these actions by the developers of The Pinnacle project now threaten to destroy the relationship between our two cities that has been built through cooperation lasting for more than a century...

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the City Council of the City of Bristol Virginia that it respectfully requests its friends in Bristol Tennessee to send a clear and unequivocal message to the developers of The Pinnacle that the relentless efforts to destroy The Falls Project or inflict harm on Bristol Virginia should immediately cease...

proposed new commercial development near Bristol is concentrated on I-81 exits, not downtown... and jurisdictions compete for tax revenues
proposed new commercial development near Bristol is concentrated on I-81 exits,
not downtown... and jurisdictions compete for tax revenues
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

Greater access to water and sewer services may allow for greater density of property annexed into a town, but annexation does not always result in greater development density. In 2013 Morven Park, an 1,000 acre estate in Loudoun County once owned by Governor Westmoreland Davis, proposed incorporation into the Town of Leesburg. Within Leesburg, the zoning ordinance would reduce the potential number of houses on the estate by over 60%.

Morven Park was not seeking annexation in order to subdivide at greater density and build more houses; it sought the boundary line adjustment because the Loudoun County zoning ordinance limited the number of special events that could be held at the facility. Rather than seek to change the Loudoun County ordinance regarding events, Morven Park proposed a change in its political boundaries.8

Morven Park requested a boundary line adjustment in 2013, so the land use regulations of the Town of Leesburg would apply rather than the Loudoun County regulations
Morven Park requested a boundary line adjustment in 2013, so the land use regulations of the Town of Leesburg would apply rather than the Loudoun County regulations
Map Source: Loudoun County, webLogis - Online Mapping System

Towns can modify their boundaries through annexations, even if counties object. Towns can also negotiate adjustments of their boundary lines in cooperation with county officials. Compromise is difficult, but far less expensive than the legal process to force annexation; most court decisions altering town-county boundaries now are ratifications of negotiated deals.

Shenandoah County and the town of Strasburg adopted a long-term annexation agreement in 1984 to establish smooth transitions of areas, and later developed a Joint Land-Use Plan for annexing the Northern Shenandoah Industrial Park into the town. In that 1984 agreement, Strasburg agreed it would never become an independent city and that the town would extend water/sewer infrastructure to the areas that it annexed. In return, the town gained the authority to annex defined areas by simply passing a town ordinance, eliminating any approval delays by state review or legal costs for court proceedings. Annexed areas would be required to pay the additional property tax for the Town of Strasburg in addition to the Shenandoah County property tax, but would no longer be required to pay a 40% premium for sewer service.9

In 2014, a Warren County supervisor suggested another option for resolving conflicts between that county and the town of Front Royal: consolidation. Merging the town and county would end the long debate between the two jurisdictions over control of the US340-US522 corridor, but would also reduce the number of elected officials and potentially eliminate the cultural identity of Front Royal. A proposal to merge the county/town was rejected by voters in 1976.10

Strasburg and Front Royal are adjacent to I-66, in the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge
Strasburg and Front Royal are adjacent to I-66, in the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Successful consolidations of towns, cities, and counties in Virginia are rare.

Since 1900, consolidations have occurred twice in Virginia between two independent cities: Richmond-Manchester in 1910 and Suffolk-Nansemond in 1974.

Town-town mergers include Basic City merging into Waynesboro (1923), North Tazewell merging into Tazewell (1963), and Cambria merging into Christiansburg (1964).

City-county combinations include the City of Newport News expanding to include the entire county of Warwick in 1958, while the City of Virginia Beach absorbed Princess Anne County in 1963. Also in 1963, the City of South Norfolk merged with Norfolk County to create the new City of Chesapeake.

In other mergers, the Hampton (city), Phoebus (town), and Elizabeth City (county) consolidated into the City of Hampton in 1952. The towns of Holland and Whaleyville merged with Nansemond County to create the City of Nansemond in 1972.

Many mergers have been blocked by the state or rejected by local voters:11

Defeated Consolidations
Units of Government InvolvedProposed Name of Consolidated Government Year of Rejection
Hampton (city)
Newport News (city)
Warwick (city)
City of Hampton Roads1956
Richmond (city)
Henrico (county)
City of Richmond1961
Winchester (city)
Frederick (county)
City of Winchester1969
Roanoke (city)
Roanoke (county)
Name of City to be determined by voters1969
Charlottesville (city)
Albemarle (county)
Name of City to be determined by voters1970
Bristol (city)
Washington (county)
Name of City to be determined by voters1971
Front Royal (town)
Warren (county)
Front Royal - City or County form to be determined by voters1976
Pulaski (town)
Dublin (town)
Pulaski (county)
County of Pulaski1983
Staunton (city)
Augusta (county)
Consolidated County of Augusta and Tier City of Staunton 1984
Covington (city)
Clifton Forge (city)
Alleghany (county)
City of Alleghany Highlands1987
Emporia (city)
Greensville (county)
City of Emporia 1987
Roanoke (city)
Roanoke (county)
Roanoke Metropolitan Government1990
Clifton Forge (city)
Alleghany (county)
City of Alleghany1991
Bedford (city)
Bedford (county)
City of Bedford and Shire of Bedford1995

Why would local governments need to expand their boundaries?
Typically a colonial town charter would authorize surveying something like 50 acres into 100 lots. After the original lots had been sold, and population had grown outside the boundaries, expansion was often proposed via a petition from landowners adjacent to the town. Landowners asked for their properties to be annexed into the town, so they could qualify for town services - paved streets, water, sewer, etc. Landowners calculated that the higher taxes for town services would be offset by reduced utility rates, increased fire and police protection, etc.

The process of annexation kept taxes (as well as services...) low in the counties, and allowed town/city officials to manage logical extensions of services and to shape development that otherwise would occur outside the city boundaries. By 1902, after an annexation the rural counties were no longer obliged to pay for servicing the population and acreage that was incorporated into a city. Counties stayed rural and focused on agriculture, cities offered extra services to landowners and charged higher taxes, and the separation between the rural/developed areas was marked by the city boundary.

Why would the state be involved in annexation disputes?
An act of the General Assembly was required to modify town/city boundaries because the state legislature had created the municipal corporation in the first place. The 1902 Constitution created an alternative mechanism for dealing with annexations, reducing workload (and some politically-hard choices) for members of the General Assembly. After 1902, a panel of judges could rule on annexation requests and decide on the appropriate boundaries when counties, towns, or cities disputed a proposed annexation. (Since all judges are appointed by the General Assembly, judges will always be aware of the political impact of their decision in resolving annexation disputes.).

After World War I, annexation disputes became far more common. Counties grew so fast that they developed their own urban constituency. Residents adjacent to cities began to resist annexation, and county officials desired to maintain their responsibilities for developed areas. The old pattern of folding all urbanizing areas into cities, expanding the power of city officials and shrinking the population and tax base of the counties, became politically unacceptable. After World War II, county officials in Tidewater were particularly concerned about who would end up in control of the development of their region. Counties and cities engaged in complicated merger and annexation disputes, and finally established a ring of independent cities that blocked Norfolk from expanding.

Since 1975, the General Assembly has blocked the creation of new cities. Since 1987, the state legislature has passed legislation that has blocked involuntary annexation of county land by cities.

What role does the Federal government play in annexation?
Since passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Federal government has examines annexation proposals in Virginia and other Southern states with a history of racial discrimination. The Federal government sought to ensure that annexations would not dilute the voting power of blacks excessively. A typical annexation of a suburb to a central city will add more white voters to the city, potentially blocking blacks for getting elected to political office. In the 1970's in particular, the racial composition of cities like Richmond was not mirrored by the racial composition of the City Councils. Blacks would often vote as a bloc, or "bullet vote" for just one or two candidates, to ensure some blacks would be elected to office. Any annexation that added more white voters was scrutinized by the Justice Department to ensure the impact on the voting rights of minorities were not diminished.

Virginia Cities That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

Why There Are No Towns or Counties in Southeastern Virginia



1. Code of Virginia, Title 58.1 - TAXATION, "§ 58.1-3840. Certain excise taxes permitted," (last checked April 23, 2014)
2. "Adding and Subtracting," Richmond Magazine, January 2008,; "Richmond Master Plan 2000-2010," City of Richmond, pp.7-10, (last checked April 19, 2014)
3. Andrew V. Sorrell, Bruce A. Vlk, "Virginia's Never-ending Moratorium on City-County Annexations," The Virginia News Letter, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, January 25, 2012, (last checked April 24, 2014)
4. "Va. budget amendment favors Bristol, Va., tax stance," Bristol Herald Courier, March 27, 2013,; ""A lot of nastiness," Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol Herald Courier, (last checked August 13, 2013)
5. "Bristol Va., officials bracing for possible lawsuit from Washington County over The Falls development," Bristol Herald Courier, August 12, 2013,; "Taxes," County of Washington, Virginia,; "Lowe's to relocate in Bristol, VA, open larger store in 'The Falls,'" WJHL-TV, March 25, 2014,; "Commission hears testimony on city/county revenue-sharing plan," Bristol Herald Courier, May 12, 2014, (last checked May 13, 2014)
6. "City releases remaining $16 million in bonds after The Pinnacle acquires the required retail space," Bristol Herald Courier, April 2, 2014, (last checked April 19, 2014)
7. "Bristol Virginia City Council Minutes, Regular Meeting," March 11, 2014,; "Stop the ‘unwarranted aggression’," Bristol Herald Courier, March 11, 2014 , (last checked May 31, 2014)
8. "Morven Park Annexation Faces Uncertainty Heading To Leesburg Town Council Vote," Leesburg Today, April 7, 2014,; "Moven Park BLA Still An Option; Leesburg Council Split In Vote," Leesburg Today, May 14, 2014, (last checked May 16, 2014)
9. "Report on the Town of Strasburg - County of Shenandoah Agreement Defining Annexation Rights," Commission on Local Government, December 1984, pp.2-3, p.11,; "Strasburg council hears public on annexation," Northern Virginia Daily, November 13, 2013, (last checked April 19, 2014)
10. "County supervisors hint at town consolidation," Northern Virginia Daily, March 21, 2014, (last checked April 19, 2014)
11. "Consolidation Actions In Virginia," Commission on Local Government, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, (last checked April 19, 2014)

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