Good Annexation Policy Leads to Rational Service Boundaries and Good Planning

Last Reviewed: June 19, 2024

Annexation is the process of formally adding territory to the official city limits of a village, town, or city. In the U.S., state laws dictate the process for annexing land, any standards or criteria that municipal (city or town) governments are required to meet, and how much say the residents or property owners in the annexed area have in the whole matter.

You reasonably might ask about the relevance of this type of municipal procedure to community development. After all, we try not to cover anything and everything connected to good local government, as we really write about making and keeping a good community with citizens and residents in mind. But we have several reasons that we think your policy and practice regarding your city limits relates to community development, and we detail them below.

1. A compact, efficient shape for the area where urban services are required will increase both the cost-effectiveness and the viability of providing the same services fairly and equitably for all.  In case you aren't sure what we mean by "urban services," we're speaking of everything from police, fire, water, and sewers to neighborhood parks and street maintenance. Less commonly, if a city or town provides electricity, schools, and libraries for some of its residents, equity demands that the entire population be provided with these same services in a reasonable amount of time.  All of these services are provided at better quality and for lower cost if the geographic areas are adjacent to one another and not some weird elongated or octopus-like shape.

meadow, row crops, and hedge row at edge of a small townCity or town may consider annexation to control quality of greenfields development

Lack of adequate municipal services often leads to lack of investment in housing and therefore loss of neighborhood quality. Creating and preserving great neighborhoods is the essence of community development.

2. In many states, the city or town has land use jurisdiction for zoning and subdivision regulation only within its municipal boundaries. (Other states have given cities permission to extend their zoning authority for a distance outside their boundaries; see our page on what is ETJ for information on this.)

 So this means that all of the careful work of appropriate segregation of land uses to protect property values goes right down the drain if the land on the other side of the street from the city limits can be used in a way that is really detrimental to neighborhood quality land values inside the city limit.

We are arguing that a rational annexation policy will prevent many planning headaches by making sure that the residents and governments who have the most to lose will have a say in what happens at the edges of the city.

3. In a somewhat different vein, sound policy in this regard can help to prevent the negative effects of sprawl.  If the county will stand strong by not providing urban levels of service, developers wanting city water and sewer services (or substitute other services popular in your area) will want to develop in the city as they should. The reverse is true too: if the county doesn't like annexation and is willing to provide urban services, the city will have a difficult time employing this strategy.

But let's say that a small city sits in a more rural county and that the two want to cooperate to ensure good quality development. If the county will steadfastly refuse to provide urban services--let's use city sewers as an example--developers who want to construct multi-family housing will opt to look for properties inside the city limits. But this is only true if the city is perfectly willing to annex land frequently as long as the new development pays its fair share of the cost of expanding services. This example raises many thorny issues, so we will stick with it in the next section.

Why a City or Town May Hesitate to Pursue Annexation

But our example just above presents many problems.  What if the town, village, or city government is cash strapped and can't really finance expanded city services?  The city might be motivated toward annexation because it wants the prestige of having a large population, or it might want to prevent low-quality development right on its borders, or it might want to have control of the area outside its limits as part of a crime prevention strategy. But just now our hypothetical city can't afford to extend its sewer lines, and it can't afford to build a new fire station just to protect 200 more houses that will be unacceptably far from the existing fire stations.

The city is left with three choices: (1) make the undesirable choice not to execute an annexation, (2) go ahead with annexation and make a vague promise to provide the same city services as those available to other residents in the future, or (3) take in the new residents and add debt or just lower the level of service, as in the fire station example. 

This overly simplified example shows that annexation may not always seem feasible when a city is operating with limited means. 

In this situation, the best outcome is for the city and the county to confer as to which entity is better prepared to provide the services that residents expect and deserve as their neighborhood becomes more developed, and to discuss whether they could cooperate or partner to make the best of the situation.

Adding Poor Quality Existing Development to Your City

Thus far we have been speaking as if the purpose of the proposed annexation is to allow new construction that has access to city services. Suppose now that actually the annexation area contains poor quality urban development that has become a problem. This situation is not at all far-fetched and in fact is fairly often the motivation for an annexation discussion.

Often the city will have better resources to provide good policing and code enforcement, and it may be able to address poor quality housing through the Community Development Block Grant or other housing programs afforded to larger governments.

The city's advantages may be especially clear if the proposed annexation will remedy an awkwardly shaped group of land parcels that are more difficult for county police and fire departments to reach than for the city's emergency personnel. Islands of land completely surrounded by the city are almost always better served by the city than the county, for example. In the case of islands, we think that cities should be aggressive in seeking annexations regardless of most fiscal factors.

Where haphazard land use, lack of land use regulation, lack of code enforcement, and perhaps social ostracism of minorities have created undesirable neighborhoods, sometimes the city sees a moral obligation to help improve conditions. If so, the city should take special care in preparing a master plan for the annexation area to help reassure residents about the implications of joining the city.

This planning process also will increase the chances that the city is being prepared for and realistic about the obligations it is assuming through adding in the sub-par neighborhood.

Sometimes long-term residents will resist the idea of being annexed, fearing even worse discrimination and victimization from aggressive code enforcement. In this situation, the city should strongly consider whether and how it can use its clout to provide some financial assistance with bringing housing up to code. Cities can leverage state and federal programs by providing residents of annexed areas with relevant information and even help with applying for programs.

Of course the other danger with a city opting for annexation of an area in order to address an adjacent neighborhood of low-quality housing is that the neighborhood may fall into the appearance or the reality of gentrification. It's quite important to reassure current residents that they will be able to stay in their homes, or if not, that they will have more than adequate help in finding new appropriate and affordable housing.

Another consideration for a city entertaining the idea of an annexation is that the city may have to amend its zoning or other development regulations, as well as its codes, to allow existing norms in the annexation area to continue. This doesn't necessarily mean that the city is being cowardly by avoiding unpopular regulation. It might simply mean that the city has not faced issues and situations common in more rural areas for many years, and wishes to accommodate those. A city would at least want to be self-aware if it creates a large number of nonconforming uses as it annexes. (For a real-life story on this subject, see a visitor's question and our answer on existing businesses in an incorporation, where 30 to 40 existing rural home-based businesses became instantly nonconforming.)

Role of Residents in making Decision About Whether to Be Annexed

Up until now we have been writing mostly about the city's decision making process in determining whether to annex land. However, in many states and many locales, the opinions of current residents are paramount, as well they should be. In some places, the current residents take the initiative and petition for annexation, whether this procedure is decreed in state law or merely in local custom. Many cities have a policy of not pursuing a hostile annexation opposed by current residents, and some state laws require consent of all or a large percentage of property owners.

Regardless of the legal framework, it makes good sense for a city to confer extensively with current residents and property owners in area proposed to be added to the city.  Through careful explanation of the city's future plans (or planning process) for the areas and its policies on everything from timing and cost of urban services to code enforcement , dialogue about problems that could be created or alleviated by becoming an official part of the city will be informative to all parties.

Cities need to become aware of pressing issues in a possible addition to its boundaries and the history of "why things are the way they are." Residents need accurate information about what will happen to their taxes, when they could expect to receive which city services, how code enforcement and zoning operate in the city, and how their voices can be heard in city government. All of these worries and anxieties on both sides can be addressed in face-to-face meetings with all of the appropriate departments, as well as in carefully compiled written information provided to residents and property owners.

Usually when you hear of bad outcomes from annexation decisions, a little detective work will uncover the fact that residents didn't know what to expect, or that the city didn't anticipate some of the problems it faced when the annexation went into effect. Sometimes a group of residents or one key resident harbor long-standing disgust with the city, and these emotional reactions require patience to attempt to resolve.

Many residents and property owners also will lack an understanding of the benefits of zoning and land use controls, and some will be glad to tell anyone who will listen that they hate the thought of relinquishing their freedom from such restraints. Then it becomes quite a feat for planning commissions and local governments to explain why well-executed land use, development, and design controls make for a more pleasant, more efficient community where property values hold steady and increase over time.

A battle between rural and urban mentalities is hard to avoid in some situations, but if all parties seek to do what is best for making a compact and logical urbanized area that functions well, all of these conflicts and problems can be resolved in due time.

Sample Municipal Annexation Policy

Below we will give you the basis of a policy on city boundaries. Of course we suggest much more elaboration on each point, explaining the rationale, any qualifiers or mitigating circumstances you want to describe, and referring to relevant state law. Also you will need to entirely add, delete, or revise provisions based on what your state law requires or prohibits.

The policy might be adopted by a planning commission as a general guideline for their making recommendations. We firmly believe that annexations should be referred to the planning commission for their input, by the way.

Or the policy might simply be a statement by the city council to help the council remain objective in both actions and words.

Where the topic is important either because of the pace of growth or because of the potential number of separate actions where growth has been haphazard, this policy also might find its way into the comprehensive plan contents.

In any case, a written policy has merit in helping to explain the position of the city to residents. 

Here are potential topic sentences for you to adapt to your circumstances as you write your own policy:

  1. The city shall consider orderly and timely additions to its limits in all areas covered by the official City Sphere of Influence map. (This isn't a specific term in use anywhere, as far as we know, but the concept is included in many comprehensive plans.) Areas not shown on the map will not be annexed.
  2. City staff shall meet annually with the County staff to determine the County's input into the City Sphere of Influence map.
  3. Highest priority for annexations shall be given to areas that are islands surrounded by the current city limits.
  4. Decisions about city limits shall be based on the creation of logical planning areas for the city.
  5. Areas where existing public services are determined to be far below city standards shall be annexed only upon determination of a feasible method of financing the provision of new or upgraded services.
  6. Special assessments to cover the cost of providing sidewalks and residential street lighting shall be the preferred method of financing those services if they are desired by the current property owners or necessary to bring the new city residents up to the standards enjoyed by current residents.
  7. Consent of three-fourths of the current property owners shall be required for consideration of an annexation. Both the city and property owners themselves may initiate the canvassing necessary to determine property owner assent. Exceptions shall be made in the case of six or fewer property owners when at least two-thirds of owners agree.
  8. Annexation shall not proceed until all current residents, whether tenants or owners, have been consulted and informed of the implications of the expansion of city limits. Adopting ordinances before the city council shall be subject to a public hearing, with notices sent to the address of record to each property owner and tenant.

Summary of Planning Implications of Annexing Land

In total, annexation can help planning become more rational and more beneficial to both the city and its hinterland. Even with the best of intentions for city and county coordination on land use policies, inevitably the sum of the planning actions of both bodies will not add up to a totally coordinated land use and transportation picture as land develops into urban and suburban uses.

Judicious use of proactively adding to your city's boundaries also can help to curtail sprawl by assuring that the city has the right to control and restrict strip mall development, inappropriately large subdivision lots, and sub-standard development through both zoning compatible with city goals and enforcement of building codes and property maintenance codes appropriate to an urbanized environment.

These benefits of a proactive and rational annexation policy make it valuable tool for planning. To this end, we encourage the active involvement of planning commissions in determining the future boundaries of the city. We also urge you to include this topic in your comprehensive plan and in neighborhood plans where relevant.

Check Out Some Pages Related to City Boundaries and Sprawl

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