Ask the Expert: Local Government

 

shutterstock_188321978So my day job is teaching at a state university — some time back I did the “10 things your professor wishes you knew” post — but my interest, the thing I study and teach, is local government. Local governments in the United States are endlessly fascinating, in part because the US is abnormally fragmented compared to the rest of the world.

Perhaps an example helps. New York City Metropolitan Area has a population of 20 million. Moscow Metropolitan Area also has a population of 20 million. Yet Moscow has 19 million people living inside a single government, while New York City has less than half that, the other 11 million be spread across over 200 cities in five states. Here in my home state of Kentucky, fully a quarter of the incorporated cities — about 20% of the population of the state — are in Jefferson County (Louisville Consolidated Government).

Suburbanization, Autonomy, and Power

The majority of Americans lives in urban areas — defined variously over time — but currently a single jurisdiction with over 50,000 people and all adjacent territories of less than 50,000 that have strong economic and social ties. Historically, this definition has encouraged thinking about urbanization as “moving to the city,” and for most of American history that has been justified. After all, the jurisdiction with more than 50,000 residents is the “Central City” and the surrounding territories are the suburbs; and, obviously, the suburbs with economic and social ties are traveling into the Central City. For this reason, metropolitan areas have been created whenever new “central cities” cropped up — such as Anaheim and Los Angeles — even though the economic and social ties of the region do not mimic that sharp divide. It is also too much of a gloss over the real development of American local government.

For most of American history — really up until the 1940s — people had to live close to where they worked, and because industrial work required lots of heavy things be close by, this encouraged dense central cities. Americans have never liked that. As far back as the first settlers in the 1600s, those who were rich enough to own horses and carriages, or multiple homes, would rather live in the country and come into the cities to work when they needed to (in many ways, a pattern of living reminiscent of the 17th century nobility in England, though in the Colonies it could extend even to the middle classes). What happened starting in the mid-to-late 20th century was that cheap transportation, in the form of automobiles, made it possible for the working class to live this way, too.

What the working and middle class discovered in America was that moving out of large cities resulted in “better” government. For all the attempts to clean up American politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, all that was achieved was replacing one corrupt government with another, differently corrupt government. Residents failed to see the significant difference between a system of government where the machines gave jobs and contracts to the foot-soldiers of the party who jumped through the requisite political hoops, and one where the government gave jobs and contracts to the rich and educated who jumped through the requisite bureaucratic hoops. Most residents got cut out of the deals, regardless. But as they moved out of the central cities and into the suburbs, they formed new governments (initially just to fend off attempts by the central cities to re-acquire the fleeing residents). Those new governments were no less corrupt — the residents didn’t claim otherwise — but they were beholden to the residents of the city, rather than to the machines or the bureaucrats.

As time went on and the central cities tried to flex their economic power, the suburbs realized that if they just attracted jobs of their own, they could disengage from the central cities’ power bases and control their own destinies. By the 1980s or 1990s, metropolises were much less defined by people leaving the suburbs and driving into the city to work than by people driving from one suburb to another to work, to another to shop, to another for leisure, and home to another.

Thus, we saw the great fragmenting of American local government after 1970.

And local politics suddenly becomes all about maintaining the all-important autonomy.

Land, Money, and Voters

Maintaining local government autonomy requires three things: territory, money, and political power. That is, land, money, and voters. This explains the interests that tend to dominate local government: developers, bankers and businessmen, and home-owners. Generally speaking, their desires are similar. Developers and home-owners want housing to increase in value, and that’s good for the bankers (who originate the loans) and the businessmen (who serve the rich clientele). However, the confluence of interests is only true on a small scale. There are different types of living patterns and housing, different types of businesses and banking, and they don’t mix well. When people are moving into a neighborhood, they want it to have a certain, consistent feel. Allowing everyone to do whatever they want would wreck the feel, and while individual property owners might do well, the community as a whole would suffer. Cities control this partly by zoning, but zoning is actually pretty complicated to do right, so most cities actually solve the problem with a uniform zoning code and a small size. If the city and neighborhood are the same, then problems can be worked out ad hoc, but the results can be fairly consistent.

Do note, that while this is true of more than half of all cities, more Americans live in larger cities, so this is not true of most American’s experience.

Thus, while there was an initial fear that local governments would grow into each other and compete, in practice, most local governments are incredibly reluctant to annex new territory because doing so would upset the agreement of their major interests.

The Patchwork of Politics

The result is an American local government pattern of 89,000 local governments that are all different, and yet have strong similarities. The voters are most interested in having their governments be responsive, for which privilege they are willing to pay a bit more. Large cities, like New York and LA are actually quite cheap for most residents, because those residents are dirt poor (New York City is actually poorer per capita than New York State). Their housing accommodations are small and cramped, but they also don’t pay much in taxes. They live in the street – -not like a hobo — but in the sense that their apartments exist mostly as a place to sleep. The rest of their time is in comfortable parks and coffee shops. They also benefit from the many public services offered, from public transportation to local welfare agencies. In return for the low cost of living, they get very little say in how the city is actually run, decisions being made fairly centrally by the mayor, who is more responsive to the rich taxpayers, organized interests such as labor unions, and so on.

640px-Usa_counties_large.svg

Map of counties in the United States

When residents become wealthy enough (frequently by getting married), they move to a suburb where they will have more control over the world they inhabit.

But that responsiveness is constrained by the needs to maintain the money and territorial integrity to remain autonomous from larger cities or to fend off the state. Thus, cities don’t get too small, and small towns are quite willing to merge if doing so will give them the size and power needed to fend off an annexation by a central city or mandates from the state. But they also don’t get too big.

To give an example, cities in Kentucky are fairly insular, partly because most of them are geographically isolated. However, they have, over the last few years, gotten quite active together in order to fight the Kentucky Retirement System which controls more and more of their budgets. This does not, however, extend to other issues. It is only because the danger of KRS altering the retirement contribution formula threatens them all that they are willing to work together (and I suspect the geographic isolation helps further; when separated by a hundred miles, such cooperation is unlikely to lead to a merger or annexation attempt). More than that, cities in Kentucky are willing to use the nuclear option of state-local relations: ask the IRS to intercede on their behalf against the state. Inviting the federal government to intervene in a dispute is only slightly less risky than asking Edward I to adjudicate Scottish Succession.

Understanding Local Government

In closing, I hope to give you a way to think about how local governments work. Unlike national politics, local government is not much defined by “compromise” on big things. Rather, local governments are about finding a coalition of money, voters, and properties that can make a functional community. Their behavior is driven by the need to keep the community relatively independent.

This doesn’t mean they need to be self-sufficient (they are more than happy to specialize and trade) but it does mean they don’t want to be reliant on another community for the continued operation of the government. Their behavior –annexing or not annexing, cooperating or running to the feds or state, even their services and taxes — can be understood as the result of these concerns.

So, next time you are watching a local government election or council meeting, look for voters, money, and land, and see how that is driving local decisions.

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    This is a great layout of the factors. Thank you for putting so much of what my Gut tells me into a nice format.

    • #1
  2. La Tapada Member
    La Tapada
    @LaTapada

    This is very interesting. Thank you.

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Yes, I found it interesting end enlightening too!

    • #3
  4. Grosseteste Thatcher
    Grosseteste
    @Grosseteste

    Thank you, this is very interesting.

    Aren’t prices generally higher in New York City?  Do the social services make up for that in cost of living considerations?

    Edit: Also, would you mind selecting the Group Writing category in Edit Options?

    • #4
  5. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Grosseteste:Thank you, this is very interesting.

    Aren’t prices generally higher in New York City? Do the social services make up for that in cost of living considerations?

    Edit: Also, would you mind selecting the Group Writing category in Edit Options?

    I have it selected -is it only showing on my end?

    Prices in New York City are higher, but the poor who live there aren’t buying much -they’re poor.  You can’t get a nice house, but they don’t need one.  They live in a closet, but Central Park is their back yard.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Here in Michigan, townships that don’t want to have any of their territory annexed by adjacent municipalities can vote to become charter townships.  Our township did that in the 1980s, to keep the city of Battle Creek from gobbling up any more of the neighborhoods.  Charter townships are also allowed to levy higher taxes than ordinary townships can.

    The big issue in our county and township primary elections this year was roads.  Of course, assessments for roads are based on property, so that doesn’t contradict what you said.  Our township levied a 7-year, per-parcel tax two years ago to raise $4.x million to resurface all 65 miles of township roads.  It was controversial, but much of the work is completed, and it’s great. The township supervisor (also our next-door neighbor and a former colleague of mine) who spearheaded the work was the top vote-getter in the primary, which is basically the general election, too. The county road department does the work (and pays 30 percent of the work on township roads).  Thanks to a new, conservative Republican county commissioner, we now get a lot of roadwork done for our money.

    Sometimes roads are a state issue. When new state taxes have been proposed, I’ve never heard a big public discussion of how much roadwork our state gets for the money.  It’s all about more, more, more money.  At the local level, results per dollar spent have been a big issue.

    • #6
  7. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Very informative. Thanks Sabrdance. I wonder, have you been paying attention to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH) being implemented by the Obama adminstration? It sounds like an attempt to quash the independence of local government – especially of the suburban variety.

    • #7
  8. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    tigerlily:Very informative. Thanks Sabrdance. I wonder, have you been paying attention to the Affirmatively Afirmative Housing Act affh being implemented by the Obama adminstration? It sounds like an attempt to quash the independence of local government – especially of the suburban variety.

    Yes, I’ve been following it.  It’s a terrible idea that is an overstepping of Federal authority on both states and local governments -but I’m not sure what we do about it, though.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    tigerlily:Very informative. Thanks Sabrdance. I wonder, have you been paying attention to the Affirmatively Afirmative Housing Act affh being implemented by the Obama adminstration? It sounds like an attempt to quash the independence of local government – especially of the suburban variety.

    Your link doesn’t work.

    • #9
  10. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Does the name Kenneth VerBurg mean anything to you? I have at my desk one of his books on Michigan County Government, and it’s great.  I’m not sure if anyone outside of Michigan had or has any reason to know about him.

    I had been wanting to learn about the history of township government – to learn about the progression of changes in what they do and how they work.  For example, at one time township government had a lot to do with schools; the only connection any more is that some of the rural township halls are former country schools.

    The only book I know of that touches on the subject is Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870-1930 by Hal Barron (1997).

    But I learned about Kenneth VerBurg’s books on Michigan township and county government, so recently requested one of his books on township government in order to look for leads. My university library sent me one on county government instead (I guess I did say I’d accept any edition for now) and I found it fascinating.

    Dr. VerBurg died just last year. I wish I could have met him.

    • #10
  11. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I spent 50 years in the Pgh Metro area. While the city has declined in population the surrounding county has not or if it has not by much. The county Allegheny is made up of some 127 different governments. What is amazing are the economy’s of scale. They run in reverse. The city of Pgh is the largest of these and has the highest taxes. I believe the wage tax in the city is 3% of earned income while the others manage nicely on 1%. One town is only about 500 people. The area would be an interesting study for you, Saberdance.

    • #11
  12. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    The Reticulator:Does the name Kenneth VerBurg mean anything to you?

    The only book I know of that touches on the subject is Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870-1930 by Hal Barron (1997).

    I don’t know VerBurg.  I do know Hal Barron.  I haven’t read that particular work, but I’ve read others of his.

    PHCheese:I spent 50 years in the Pgh Metro area. While the city has declined in population the surrounding county has not or if it has not by much. The county Allegheny is made up of some 127 different governments. What is amazing are the economy’s of scale. They run in reverse. The city of Pgh is the largest of these and has the highest taxes. I believe the wage tax in the city is 3% of earned income while the others manage nicely on 1%. One town is only about 500 people. The area would be an interesting study for you, Saberdance.

    Tax rates and tax price don’t necessarily correlate.  Suburbs with much higher property values often have lower tax rates, but the actual amount of money paid per resident is higher.  Part of the reason people who move to the suburbs are wealthy is that the poor can’t afford the properties to do so.

    Pittsburgh has been studied in this way -Ron Oakerson, Governing Public Economies.  Good book -underlays a lot of my own thinking.

    • #12
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Fascinating, Sabrdance. I’ve been in small towns that hadn’t incorporated but wanted to. They always underestimated the need for services and money, and thus the incorporation (thank goodness) didn’t go through. Your post explains how all these various factors come together. Thank you.

    • #13
  14. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    PHCheese:I spent 50 years in the Pgh Metro area. While the city has declined in population the surrounding county has not or if it has not by much. The county Allegheny is made up of some 127 different governments. What is amazing are the economy’s of scale. They run in reverse. The city of Pgh is the largest of these and has the highest taxes. I believe the wage tax in the city is 3% of earned income while the others manage nicely on 1%. One town is only about 500 people. The area would be an interesting study for you, Saberdance.

    Many of the municipalities in Allegheny County (mostly inner ring burbs) are Act 47 which means they are under state control due to very poor finances. Most are functional mergers with nearby jurisdictions for services like emergency response and water. I work for the regional council of governments. It is a very messed up area. I’d rather it be the way it is though than be like say Jacksonville, Columbus, OH, or Louisville where everyone just consolidates. Studying the fragmentation of the PGH region is quite interesting. There are well over 500 municipalities in the 10-county PGH region, more than some states.

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    RyanFalcone:Many of the municipalities in Allegheny County (mostly inner ring burbs) are Act 47 which means they are under state control due to very poor finances. Most are functional mergers with nearby jurisdictions for services like emergency response and water. I work for the regional council of governments. It is a very messed up area. I’d rather it be the way it is though than be like say Jacksonville, Columbus, OH, or Louisville where everyone just consolidates. Studying the fragmentation of the PGH region is quite interesting. There are well over 500 municipalities in the 10-county PGH region, more than some states.

    I love crazy patchworks of state and local government. It’s the only thing that can save us from Hillary (not the real person Hillary, but Hillary the abstract concept). Which salvation could happen if we can keep them from being administrative arms of her empire.

    • #15
  16. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    How does annexation work?

    Does some urban villian twirl his mustache and tell the people outside of their borders something like “muwa ha ha ha ha now you will pay us monies muwa ha ha ha ha”

    What if the people being annexed tell them to go away in much more colorful terms?

    • #16
  17. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Sabrdance: When people are moving into a neighborhood, they want it to have a certain, consistent feel.

    Thanks for the cogent condensed version.  Look forward to any breakouts on the numerous themes. The above quote, for instance, would take volumes (and many bruised feelings) to unpack.

    For those who don’t think a non-leftist Supreme Court is vital, imagine how this history would have changed if the RINOs on the Court hadn’t hung together and decided Milliken v. Bradley the way they did.

    • #17
  18. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    How do I PM or e-mail you? Some of the comments to your post mentioned HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule. I wrote an amicus brief in a takings case that involved the imposition of mandates for below-market pricing of some units in each development and cited some work from the Independent Institute. I have a PDF of the paper, but haven’t been able to get to it on the Independent’s site..

    In summary, Tom Means, Edward Stringham, and Edward Lopez found that affordable housing mandates operate as a form of price control that have predictable effects on supply (less) and price (higher). From the study, “Over the course of thirty years in the entire San Francisco Bay Area, below-market mandates have resulted in the production of only 6,836 affordable units, an average of 228 per year.”

    • #18
  19. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Guruforhire:How does annexation work?

    Does some urban villian twirl his mustache and tell the people outside of their borders something like “muwa ha ha ha ha now you will pay us monies muwa ha ha ha ha”

    What if the people being annexed tell them to go perform profane acts with some livestock?

    Annexation can be a real mish mash.  My unincorporated area just got annexed into a small town.  We didn’t really have any clue what was going on until it was way too late to prevent it. There were too many in our area that wanted the annexation to try to stop it.

    Another neighborhood near-by heard about it in time and filed lawsuits with the state to prevent the take over.  They were successful.  Part of their success was also that they formed a coalition that promised the current office holders that that persons from the proposed annex area would run against them in the upcoming elections.

    So… people, business, money.

    • #19
  20. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    The unincorporated area where I live and grew up on the border of Houston has over 50,000 people. I often wish it was incorporated just so we could avoid being gobbled up by the big city at some point (as Kingwood was, against the general will of its residents). But being on the outskirts of a metropolis means changing with the city regardless of any districting or laws. Population density, traffic, crime, culture, and many other things are influenced by growth of the general area. Spring still has its charms, but this isn’t the “town” I grew up in. Any place near a big city effectively belongs to it.

    I’ve also lived around moderately sized cities and spent time in tiny towns where even the most mundane visitors are reported in the local newspapers. As you say, the same impulses toward nepotism, greed, and abuse are everywhere. It’s human nature. But democracy has more meaning in smaller communities where citizens actually know and interact with their leaders (not just in politics and business, but informal leadership as well).

    Busy-bodies are the plague of any government, which is why the Texas standard of disallowing legislators from working every year is so great. Are there examples of this strategy at the city/town or county level?

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Aaron Miller: Busy-bodies are the plague of any government, which is why the Texas standard of disallowing legislators from working every year is so great. Are there examples of this strategy at the city/town or county level?

    You mean the legislature doesn’t meet every year?  Or is it some sort of term limit?

    (Great comment, by the way.)

    • #21
  22. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Pilli:

    Guruforhire:How does annexation work?

    Does some urban villian twirl his mustache and tell the people outside of their borders something like “muwa ha ha ha ha now you will pay us monies muwa ha ha ha ha”

    What if the people being annexed tell them to go perform profane acts with some livestock?

    Annexation can be a real mish mash. My unincorporated area just got annexed into a small town. We didn’t really have any clue what was going on until it was way too late to prevent it. There were too many in our area that wanted the annexation to try to stop it.

    Another neighborhood near-by heard about it in time and filed lawsuits with the state to prevent the take over. They were successful. Part of their success was also that they formed a coalition that promised the current office holders that that persons from the proposed annex area would run against them in the upcoming elections.

    So… people, business, money.

    Laws vary from state to state.  The laxest form is annexation by ordinance -the annexing government passes an ordinance and that’s it.  The strictest form is double-veto referendum -the people of the annexing jurisdiction and the people of the annexed jurisdiction must both hold an annexation referendum and both pass it.  In between you have many variations.  Basically, unincorporated territory is usually annexed by decision only of the annexing body, but incorporated areas require their own permission to be annexed.

    • #22
  23. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Strangely enough, the states with the laxest annexation laws have more cities -despite the fact this should make annexation, and therefore consolidation easier.  I’m pretty sure that’s because if annexation is easier, you get a lot more defensive incorporation.

    John Park:How do I PM or e-mail you? Some of the comments to your post mentioned HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule. I wrote an amicus brief in a takings case that involved the imposition of mandates for below-market pricing of some units in each development and cited some work from the Independent Institute. I have a PDF of the paper, but haven’t been able to get to it on the Independent’s site..

    In summary, Tom Means, Edward Stringham, and Edward Lopez found that affordable housing mandates operate as a form of price control that have predictable effects on supply (less) and price (higher). From the study, “Over the course of thirty years in the entire San Francisco Bay Area, below-market mandates have resulted in the production of only 6,836 affordable units, an average of 228 per year.”

    I’m familiar with the literature.  AFFH’s problem is that it doesn’t solve the problem poverty, it just spreads it around.  There actually is a literature that says “break up pockets of poverty and people will have an easier time getting out of poverty” but you have to move one or two poor families, not transplant whole apartment complexes.

    • #23
  24. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Sabrdance:Laws vary from state to state. The laxest form is annexation by ordinance -the annexing government passes an ordinance and that’s it. The strictest form is double-veto referendum -the people of the annexing jurisdiction and the people of the annexed jurisdiction must both hold an annexation referendum and both pass it. In between you have many variations. Basically, unincorporated territory is usually annexed by decision only of the annexing body, but incorporated areas require their own permission to be annexed.

    Wow, I never would have thought it would have been straight old western movie villianry.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Sabrdance: Strangely enough, the states with the laxest annexation laws have more cities -despite the fact this should make annexation, and therefore consolidation easier. I’m pretty sure that’s because if annexation is easier, you get a lot more defensive incorporation.

    Hmmm.  Does Michigan have more cities than Ohio?  Because Michigan townships can protect their property from annexation, while Ohio townships have very little such protection.  I can’t lay my hands on the book in which I read that, though, and it was written almost 25 years ago.

    I suppose the Michigan protections are somewhat like incorporation, though. Townships can become charter townships, which makes them a little more like municipal governments than rural townships.

    • #25
  26. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    The Reticulator:

    tigerlily:Very informative. Thanks Sabrdance. I wonder, have you been paying attention to the Affirmatively Afirmative Housing Act affh being implemented by the Obama adminstration? It sounds like an attempt to quash the independence of local government – especially of the suburban variety.

    Your link doesn’t work.

    Let’s see if this works.

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    tigerlily:

    The Reticulator:

    tigerlily:Very informative. Thanks Sabrdance. I wonder, have you been paying attention to the Affirmatively Afirmative Housing Act affh being implemented by the Obama adminstration? It sounds like an attempt to quash the independence of local government – especially of the suburban variety.

    Your link doesn’t work.

    Let’s see if this works.

    It does. Thanks.

    • #27
  28. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

    I mentioned Houston’s annexation of Kingwood. Technically, Kingwood residents got to vote on it. But in actuality, that referendum was combined with votes to annex a bunch of low-income neighborhoods. So the poorer areas in want of city welfare funds tipped the balance against a prosperous area that had no need of it.

    • #28
  29. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    http://news.wabe.org/post/how-atlanta-was-kept-out-cobb-county-10-foot-wide-city

    You might have noticed these green signs in East Cobb. They’re around Johnson Ferry Road, near the border of the Chattahoochee River. In white lettering, they read, “Former City Limits Chattahoochee Plantation (1961-1995).”

    These signs sparked our curiosity at WABE. We’d never heard of a city called “Chattahoochee Plantation.” But as we looked into the history of the area and the signs, we found a story stranger than we expected.

    Not only was there once a city in this part of East Cobb (an area that’s all unincorporated today), but it was one that was once 30 or so miles long. It spanned Cobb County’s entire border with the Chattahoochee River, all the way up to where the county meets Roswell and back down to where Six Flags is today.

    And for much of that length, the city was just 10 feet wide.

    Now, this got us really curious. What could possibly be the purpose of incorporating such a long stretch of land so narrow it couldn’t even fit a house?

    As it turns out, back when these boundaries were drawn in the late 1960s, the purpose was clear. It was to create something like an invisible force field to protect Cobb County from Atlanta.

    See at this time, in the ’50s and ’60s, the region was in the midst of a heated debate.

    “The larger issue at stake with the city at the time was what would be the size of Atlanta,” said Tim Crimmins, a professor of history at Georgia State University.

    Atlanta’s suburban white population was growing, Crimmins said. Former Mayor William Hartsfield thought Atlanta should grow and include these new suburbs. His successor ─ Ivan Allen Jr. ─ wanted the same.

    But these additional areas that the two Atlanta mayors hoped to annex? Areas bordering Atlanta, like Sandy Springs or perhaps parts of Cobb County?  They weren’t exactly on board.

    “The reaction to the people who were living in the unincorporated areas to the expansion of Atlanta was ‘No we would prefer not,'” Crimmins said.

    There were concerns about a government that big, and, Crimmins said, there were also concerns about race. Atlanta’s African-American population was gaining political clout.

    This is what brings us back to those former city limits signs.

    You can find the city of Chattahoochee Plantation (with its original boundaries) on some old maps like this 1968 one from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The city’s boundaries were extended to span Cobb County’s entire border with the Chattahoochee River the year this map was made.
    CREDIT COURTESY OF ATLANTA REGIONAL COMMISSION

    Starting in 1961, there was a brand new city called Chattahoochee Plantation. Developers hoped it would be a wealthy, white suburb. Crimmins said that’s probably why they put “plantation” in the name. To give it an Old South feel.

    By 1968, this new city didn’t have all that many residents yet. They hadn’t even voted in a city council or mayor.

    But that didn’t matter so much at least in the eyes of Cobb County legislators. They noticed the city was in a convenient place to send Atlanta and its mayor a clear message.

    “The Cobb County delegation introduced a change in city limits of Chattahoochee Plantation,” Crimmins said.

    In this change, they stretched the limits up and down the Chattahoochee River ─ so that the city covered Cobb County’s entire border with Atlanta and most of its border with Fulton County.

    This new incorporated area was just 10 feet across because that’s all that was necessary to make their point.

    “What you had then was in effect a symbolic strip, so that there was an incorporated city that would prevent any effort on the part of the city of Atlanta to expand its limits into Cobb County,” Crimmins said.

    Basically, this long city along the border of Cobb County was the Cobb County delegation’s way of saying: “Atlanta, stay out.”

    It was effective; Atlanta never tried to annex any part of the county. In fact, Atlanta pretty much stopped expanding altogether.

    As for the city of Chattahoochee Plantation, well, according to resident Gary McKee, the people there, who lived in the original boundaries that were wide enough to fit homes and neighborhoods, actually didn’t care all that much about being a city.

    “Just was never that big of a deal,” McKee said.

    The residents never did end up voting in a city council or mayor, and in the mid-1990s, they even gave up their charter ─ that is, what made them legally a city for about 30 years.

    Today, all that’s left of it, really, are those former city limits signs.

    • #29
  30. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Bryan G. Stephens: http://news.wabe.org/post/how-atlanta-was-kept-out-cobb-county-10-foot-wide-city

    Fascinating story. Thanks!

    • #30

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