What does planning term ETJ mean

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: Our medium-sized city is updating our comprehensive plan. I went to a hearing and a work session and jotted down some of the terms I didn't understand. Researching them I found your web page.

Can you tell me what ETJ stands for, and what it means? I figured out there are plenty of initials and insiders jargon connected to planning, but I can't guess this one. It seems to relate to some conflict my city is having with our county.

Can you help?

Editors Reply: Yes, we can tell you that ETJ stands for extra territorial jurisdiction. But then we have to explain that to you and other readers. Note that ETJ has other meanings in criminal and international law; here we will be dealing only with municipal law.

In planning terms,the typical usage occurs in a state where laws allow a city, town, or other incorporated place to have zoning, land use, and/or development approval jurisdiction for a given distance outside of their territorial boundary.

For example, state law might say that cities of over 50,000 population may zone properties within a one mile radius from the city limits. Instead of zoning, state law might allow the city to include area a given distance from the city limits within a future land use plan.

All states that we are aware of, without extensive research, would only allow this ETJ or extraterritorial jurisdiction in areas that are not incorporated in some other city or town. In other words, if two incorporated towns abut one another, they cannot zone each other's territory or grant or deny developments in one another's jurisdiction even if they are located in an ETJ state.

The intention here is to allow cities and towns a voice, or even sole control, over land uses right outside their border. Growing cities eventually probably will annex some or all of that property, so it prevents future land use headaches if the city is able to exert some control over what happens right across its border.

Instead of controlling the land use per se, the goal may be allowing a city to have some control over the quality or density of development that occurs right outside its legal boundary.

Sometimes the state requires that the neighboring jurisdiction, most often a county but also potentially a township some places in the U.S., give consent to having the city exercise this extraterritorial jurisdiction.

States obviously may impose their own wrinkles on this idea through state law. For instance, Illinois requires that the city wishing to exercise ETJ have a comprehensive plan meeting the criteria of state law.

So we can only hope that the discussion you were hearing was not about a conflict between the city and the county, but rather about how to prevent such a conflict. Or perhaps the city wants to exercise its ETJ right as granted by state law, but you are in one of the states that allows the county to decide whether the city should be able to exercise ETJ within the county or not.

We can only point out that ETJ could prevent many instances of speculative, opportunistic, and sub-par developers taking advantage of less sophisticated development approval processes in the county to build something less than ideal, then turning around immediately or in a few years and asking the city to annex something that would never have been approved by the city in the first place.

If you haven't thought much about land use at the edge of cities and towns, readers, you may think this is not much of a problem. But if you worked in city halls in medium-sized and smaller cities, you would see that developers and even individual property owners and businesses take advantage of any differences between the city and its hinterland to try to avoid regulation and taxes.

The issue is even more dramatic when we think about subdivision approval. A city may have a quality subdivision regulation that sets up appropriate standards for subdivisions and the quality of the infrastructure to be installed at developer expense. Imagine what happens when a developer starts out in the county, which will accept 20 foot wide gravel roads as streets, and then residents request annexation a couple of years later. Then the city is left to grapple with how to bring those little gravel paths up to par so that the city can maintain them using the same equipment and same procedures it uses with its other streets.

So there are good reasons for extraterritorial jurisdiction pertaining to land use. Note that ETJ must be exercised strictly within the standards set up by state law; the existence of such a law doesn't mean that a city or town has a blank check to regulate anything and everything that goes on just outside its border.

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Comments for What does planning term ETJ mean

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Sep 20, 2021
by: Anonymous

I would like to have a sign installed on my property but they say it's under an ETJ. I was just wandering if there is some legal way around this.

Editors Reply: If your property is an area where a nearby municipality has claimed its rights to ETJ, and where municipal zoning applies, you have to follow the zoning to be legal. Depending on how the state ETJ law is written and what the city zoning ordinance in question says, you may be able to apply for a zoning variance. Ask the city government that is zoning your area if that is possible, what the fees would be, and what advice they have about the probability of success. Sometimes such advice will be given informally, and sometimes not, but it's always worth a try before you spend dollars to apply.

Sep 10, 2021
Question about this
by: Anonymous

Don't the cities have to notify property owners of this?

Editors Comment: No, there is no requirement for notice to property owners when the city picks up its option for ETJ. A particular state law or municipal zoning law or development regulation may require notice if and when there are specific designations applied to the ETJ territory.

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