Annexing Fringe Areas—Is It Worth It?
Attachment theory and dysfunctional cities
Annexation of property by adjacent municipalities is a matter of intense interest to the property-owners and local governments but a snooze to everyone else. To the wonkish urbanist, annexation is endlessly fascinating.
Well, maybe not always endlessly. And maybe not ever fascinating. But it is important. This piece was an early venture into the topic, prompted in part by the vigorous annexation policies of Springfield’s then-mayor, Nelson Howarth. The controversies stirred by annexation in the 1970s have calmed, in part because Illinois cities are growing—a graver problem that squabbles over boundary lines.
For what it’s worth, any reputation I had as a straight reporter I earned in the 1970s and ‘80s writing for Illinois issues.
"Illinois municipalities are at the mercy of residents of fringe areas contiguous to a city or village . . . . Fringe area residents enjoy the benefits of municipal life but do not accept the responsibilities associated with such life . . . . In the last analysis, the problem boils down to the inadequacy of present public policy which supports the notion that it is appropriate for people to choose to be of a city or village, but not in that city or village."
With that assertion, the Illinois Cities and Villages Municipal Problems Commission in 1959 announced the birth of municipal annexation as an issue in Illinois.
It is a fundamental and vexing axiom of local government that while urban areas grow according to the laws of economics, the cities which gave them birth may grow only according to the laws of governments. A slew of factors including the automobile, school desegregation, taxes, and the suburban impulse has caused most development in Illinois cities since World War II to take root on the urban periphery beyond city hall's power to tax or govern. Urban areas, though economically a whole, are thus reduced to an administrative, legal, and political jigsaw puzzle.
According to the men and women who run Illinois cities, this haphazard growth further complicates the already complicated business of municipal government. They want changes in the law to make it easier for cities to annex developed fringe areas, thus (as one study put it "amalgamating the core municipality and its fringe area into a single coterminous socio-economic unit."
The various causes for the blossoming of the areas surrounding our cities encompass the familiar list of complaints about life in the city—high taxes, unresponsive government, congestion, poor schools. The effects of these causes are just as varied. Delivery of government services is inefficient because of urban sprawl with irrational geographic boundaries and overlapping or confused government jurisdictions. Land use planning, zoning, and building code enforcement throughout an entire urban area is complicated and generally inconsistent. Tax inequities between core city and suburbs persist, and, in fact, are worsened by "spill-in" costs for city services demanded by commuting fringe area residents and spill-outs in the form of benefits enjoyed by the same group. Merely annexing fringe areas will not in itself solve any of these problems, of course, but the cities say annexation will make it possible to solve these problems.
It is possible for a city to annex such fringe territory under Illinois laws, but it isn't easy. State annexation statutes are of the so-called self-determination type. With one exception, no land may be annexed to an Illinois municipality unless a majority of the landowners and/ or electors in the territory to be annexed approve, either through petition or referendum. The exception covers unincorporated parcels of 60 acres or less that are surrounded by the parent city; these parcels may be annexed by municipal ordinance.
The law in effect gives veto power to any of the parties to an annexation. Its intent is not to facilitate annexation but to protect potential annexees from involuntary appropriation, and it has done so with an efficiency that is the despair of the cities. How efficient the protective intent has been is suggested by statistics gathered by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. During the years 1970–73, Illinois led the nation in the number of annexations by cities over 2,500 population with 4,229 actions. That is nearly one and one-half times the number recorded in California, the next busiest annexer. But the size of the average annexation in Illinois during the same period was 22.9 acres, which was only slightly more than one-half the size of the average Florida annexation, roughly one-third that of California's, and only one-eleventh of the average annexation in Texas. In the words of one analyst, "The large number of annexations and small area indicate that most are of lot size and represent only marginal adjustments of boundaries."
Springfield most aggressive
Among Illinois cities, Springfield was by far the most aggressive annexer. It recorded 237 annexations totaling square miles in the four years sampled by the Census Bureau. Annexation been an issue in the capital city since 1947, when a citizens' committee seeking solutions to the then-crisis in city finances blamed much of the problem "on the position of the 'old city' of Springfield . . . rendering full services daily to thousands of noncity-taxpaying citizens who live . . . in adjoining territory that should be claimed as her own." Resentment against the city's pro-annexation policies among what the 1947 report called "fringe dwellers" has led to political squabbles, court fights, even threatened sit-ins.
The means which most Illinois cities have used to achieve the annexation of their unincorporated fringe areas share an element of coercion. In Springfield, for example, annexation is a condition for new developments to receive city water. In another instance, the city council threatened to suspend its agreement with an adjacent fire protection district which depended entirely on the city's fire services unless residents there took steps to annex voluntarily to the city. A developer of unincorporated land who needed city approval to route a sewer line through city land was told he could have it—if he would agree to annex his development to Springfield. The city-owned electrical utility is exploring the legality of charging fringe-area users higher rates than city users. Springfield once even tried to annex the bottom of Lake Springfield as a means of extending its territory to affluent lakeside properties and thus satisfy the requirements of the annexation law for contiguity but was ultimately rebuffed by the courts.
Annexing the bottoms of lakes is only one of the ploys Illinois cities have used to try to circumvent the annexation statutes. So-called "strip" annexation was common until it was outlawed by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1959 in the case. People v. Village of Streamwood, involving the suburban village of Streamwood at the edge of Cook County. By annexing strips of land along roads and highways, cities were able both to encircle parcels of lands smaller than 60 acres (which they could then annex unilaterally) and to extend their city limits well into surrounding was unincorporated land. The practice was acknowledged by most city officials as a perversion of the law, but they often justified it because of what they saw as the "practical unworkability" of the state's annexation laws.
Whatever the advantages are to cities, annexation among many fringe area residents is generally regarded as an unhappy fate. Most annexations are initiated either by subdividers, over whose developments Illinois municipalities have control within a mile and a half of their borders, or by individual property owners forced to annex as a condition of receiving some vital city service such as water or sewers.
Peoria doubles in size
An exception to this rule was Richwoods Township near Peoria. In the mid-1960s the city of Peoria proposed to annex Richwoods Township, which consisted of roughly 10 square miles of land, much of which was already developed. Opposition was bitter and was fueled by fears of school integration that might result if and when the Peoria school district expanded to encompass the new territory. The vote by township residents on the annexation referendum was close, but the referendum was approved.
The annexation nearly doubled the size of Peoria, providing room for future expansion. During the four-year period, 1970–73, when Springfield approved 237 annexations, Peoria approved only four, amounting to only a tenth of a square mile. Most of Peoria's development occurred within its newly enlarged boundaries. The population of "old" Peoria slipped from 106,000 in 1960 to less than 100,000 in 1970, but the addition of Richwoods added some 25,000 new residents to its population. Present city officials believe that the tax revenues collected from the Richwoods section have been vital to the city in maintaining its services in the older parts of Peoria.
The annexation has not been without cost to the city, however. Because Richwoods, like so many fringe areas around Illinois cities, had been developed according to the relatively lax zoning, construction, and planning standards of county government; the resulting deficiencies became Peoria's responsibility to remedy. Fortunately, a pre-annexation agreement with Peoria County spared the city from having to remedy all the problems at once. As Peoria's Mayor Richard E. Carver complained recently, "Our city is, even today, spending millions of dollars developing the basic road network which would normally have been constructed as the area developed had there been an adequate degree of planning and control present at that time."
Peoria suffers as well from the presence of an unincorporated urbanized enclave situated well inside its boundaries. But because it is larger than 60 acres, may not be annexed unilaterally by the city even though, in the mayor's words, it is "receiving indirectly many of our services, yet [is] contributing nothing to the revenues of our city."
The need to control the urbanization of land (especially unincorporated land) within and immediately outside their borders) is a common topic of conversation among mayors across the country. Peoria's Carver, who is an officer of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a director of the National League of Cities, shares their concerns. "A direct correlation can, in fact, be drawn between the health of American cities," he wrote recently, "and their ability to move their boundaries in conjunction with urban expansion."
"Of all the industrial states, Illinois has the worst overall policy on annexation," according to Steven Sargent, executive director of the 930-member Illinois Municipal League (IML), which has been the chief lobbyist for Illinois cities and villages since 1914. Annexation has been near the top of the IML's lists of unfinished business for at least 20 years. Due mainly to the urging of the IML, the Illinois General Assembly in 1957 empanelled the Cities and Villages Problems Commission to provide "legislative scrutiny" of municipal issues including annexation. The commission's first report, made to the 71st General Assembly in 1959, advocated the position maintained ever since by the IML with only slight modifications: that the state should "permit a county court to order annexation of certain fringe areas when the court finds that standards established by the General Assembly have been fulfilled."
The proposal is a variation of the plan used in Virginia. Explains Sargent: "The bill establishes nine criteria for annexation of a given parcel, such as: Is it contiguous? Is it residential or industrial? Is it urban in character? The judge reviews the case and simply decides whether the parcel involved meets the criteria. It's essentially a clerical role.
"We managed to get legislation based on this model passed in both houses," Sargent explains, "but unfortunately not during the same session. We had terrible opposition to it. The State Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Merchants Association, the manufacturers, the Illinois Railroad Association, the county and township officials . . . everybody."
County governments resent the loss of population through annexation, among other reasons because state and federal funds ranging from motor fuel taxes to revenue sharing are distributed according to population. Organized agriculture feared the appropriation of farmland, until the IML compromised and amended its bill so that land had to be at least 70 per cent developed before it could be annexed. Merchants, manufacturers, and railroads fear higher taxes. "Let's face it," Sargent admits, "somebody always loses when the cities gain."
Illinois's peculiar political geography also has worked against the bill. Annexation is not an issue in most of the landlocked cities of metropolitan Chicago where there is little space for cities to expand; nor is it much discussed in predominantly rural counties, where there is plenty of open space but no cities. Annexation, in short, is a problem of medium-sized cities, and so far they have been able to exercise only medium-sized political clout in the General Assembly.
Ultimately, the failure of the IML to get its court directed annexation scheme enacted has as much to do with principle as with politics. "The real factor," says Sargent, "was the feeling among the senators and representatives that you just shouldn't annex somebody without [their] having a chance to vote on it." Sargent is aware that the element of compulsion in the IML plan troubles many people, but he says, "You have to look at the long-run benefits of annexation in maintaining consistent zoning—the quality of buildings, efficient city services, and so on. The problems caused by a person building on the periphery of a municipality, enjoying all the benefits of that municipality, goes beyond any argument about the right to vote."
The case for broader annexation laws rests on several assertions: that more or better city services can be provided for every tax dollar; that inequities in the tax system can be eliminated; that planning and land use controls can be more evenly applied. But recent years have seen growing evidence that not all of these claims for annexation are true, or at least not proven, and that in fact annexation may be bad for cities.
Last year Phillip Gregg, associate professor of public administration at. Sangamon State University, authored a position paper titled, "Should States 'Modernize' Their Annexation Laws: Some Issues of Local Boundary Formation Commission." Gregg, arguing from a hypothesis developed from theoretical concepts in the current literature in urban economics and politics, concluded that there were "lapses of logic and evidence" in the case for annexation law reform.
For example, Gregg suggests that annexation does not always result in more efficient delivery of certain labor intensive services such as police and fire protection and garbage pickup; instead, unit costs stay relatively constant in cities ranging from a few thousand to roughly 150,000 population. Above 150,000 population, the provision of such services becomes more costly, not less. Examples of the services which are most efficiently provided on a large scale include sanitary sewers, water systems, and airports. These services are most economically furnished by proportionately larger units of government limited to a single service. These larger, single-function districts would overlap other government jurisdictions, allowing them "to capture the economies from different scales of production."
To the claim that such overlapping jurisdictions (what one scholar has called a "jurisdictional morass") complicate the delivery of services, Gregg replies that there is no proof; rather, "when serious problems of service delivery do exist. . . they tend to reflect political differences between the jurisdictions." Concerning inequalities of taxation and spending between parent city and fringe areas, Gregg argues that inequalities already exist within existing municipalities and that "there is no reason to expect that the annexation of another high income 'fringe' neighborhood will change the results."
As for annexing to make land use planning and zoning more "rational" (a term Gregg dismisses as "value-laden" and meaningless as applied to the annexation debate), Gregg maintains that it will merely stimulate similar problems outside the city's new boundaries, and that the argument will be reapplied to justify succeeding annexations "'until single cities would grow to encompass the major urban regions within each state." Cities would, by the very fact of growing, become less efficient, less, wieldy, and ultimately less rational. And the problem of spill-ins and spill-outs could be solved by a combination of user taxes, taxes applied to out-of-city incomes, and intergovernmental transfers of funds.
Gregg concludes his analysis by suggesting that the claims for efficiency and equity advanced in support of more liberal annexation laws are "camouflage for a much larger political question and struggle: “What government jurisdiction are going to control the new tax bases that the larger social and economic changes are creating in urban regions?" As Gregg notes, "Official large cities are confronted with property tax revenues that are not growing. One way to get some revenues, with increasing taxes or reducing service levels in the short term. is to annex."
City halls are in effect rewarded for annexation, partly because larger cities are eligible for disproportionately large grants from some federal programs, partly because of absolute increases in local tax base (though this can be negated by increased costs of service newly annexed areas) and partly because increases in population and tax base qualify cities for lower interest rates on municipal bonds sold to finance capital improvements. However, though annexation appears to be "a simple solution to serious problems . . . in financing and producing city services," in the long run, the process results in the investment of an ever larger share of tax dollars in ever less efficient cities and thus requires us to "diminish our collective economic health to advance [the] individual political opportunities" of city officials.
The argument between administrators and academics goes on, the former insisting that solutions other than annexations are impractical or politically impossible, the latter that claims made on behalf of annexation must be tested by measures more strict than political expediency. Calm heads on both sides admit that neither political nor the theoretical case has been proven, that no one yet knows enough about cities and the ways work to predict with certainty the costs and benefits of any policy on annexation. ●
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