The commonwealth of Virginia is one of the few states in the Union which holds the local government structure of “independent cities.” In fact, the Old Dominion comprises 39 of the 42 independent cities in the United States. Cities which exist within the boundaries of a county but act independently of the county’s public sector are said to be independent. This distinction may come off as a frivolous one, however, the economic implications of its history have strong effects on the efficiency and sovereignty of local municipalities.
Counties, by definition are a form of holding company for federal land, meaning county land may be used for the creation of military bases, land grant colleges (such as Virginia Tech, the state’s only land grant school) and general public works pursuits, among others. This form of city independence originated in the Tidewater Region of Virginia, where Norfolk Naval Base saw a mass expansion following first World War when land was first purchased at 474 acres of land for a sum of $1.2 million, to the current to the current day occupation of 4,300 acres on the Sewell’s point peninsula in Hampton Roads. The declaration of independence from county territory was pursued in rebellion of Federal annexation of local land, as Article VI of the US Constitution prohibits the taxation of federal property by local governmental bodies. Thus, with the proclamation of independence from counties as federal land holders, the right of taxation and gathering of public revenue was protected from Federal encroachments. It not only protects local land from federal usurpation, but the classification of independent also protects citizens within the cities from becoming subject to two taxation zones simultaneously, as citizens of other states who do not have this distinction are subject to county and city taxes.
These annexations brought on a strong urbanization of the State of Virginia following Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads’ initiative, as independent cities began to sprout in Northern Virginia, the Central Virginia area, the “Seven Sister Cities” of the tidewater region, and even westward into the Shenandoah Valley. Following the creation of independent cities, the annexation of county land by those cities was see for many years following in an effort to expand tax base and further protect their interests, both economically and politically. My grandmother still to this day speaks of the day her old home just south of the James River in Richmond magically became part of the city over night after many decades of Chesterfield County management.
In the 1970’s political majority shifted to that of rural areas within the state, and a 1971 General Assembly moratorium on city-county annexation was placed until the issue could be studied in some depth. This soon lead to the creation of the Stuart Commission (1971-1979) which then saw the passing of House Bill 603 granting counties the right to pursue permanent and total immunity from annexation. In addition, this moratorium prohibited the establishment of any new independent cities, and in 1987 an all-out freeze on boundaries for Virginia Cities has been experienced, and tax bases have wholly stagnated. This moratorium is in place until 2018, but many immunities to annexation and bureaucratic safeguards to city expansion will still continue, and I expect the question of tax base will remain
My advocacy in favor of overruling the moratorium, and loosening restrictions on city expansion going forward, so municipalities may have the opportunity for new development and new implementation of tax base growth. The issue becomes exacerbated when the implications of eminent domain are brought into light, as State Government claims on personal and commercial property within cities drives homes and businesses out and into the county areas. Just as state governments cannot impose taxes on federal establishments, nor may local governments impose taxes on state run land within their locality. For a local example, the continuous expansion of James Madison University from the center of Harrisonburg outward effectively eats the City’s tax base from the inside out, and drive out opportunities for tax collection by Harrisonburg. When the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts was established, it was done by the power of eminent domain and the acquisition of Kyger Funeral Home for the appropriation of land into the state-run enterprise of JMU, the funeral home was then forced to relocate into the county of Rockingham, thereby reducing taxable businesses and property for the city.
This issue brings about major issues for cities and local governments, especially in cities of similar composition to Harrisonburg in which much of the downtown landscape is comprised of section 8 and other low-income housing which bring major expenses to the annual budget. And with the addition of vacating businesses and middle-class households to the counties, the income for the government is outweighed by the burdens. Along with budget deficits, this non-expansion policy for local governments I find to have a long term impact on income distribution and wealth inequality across the Old Dominion. There should be a revision of House Bill 603 and the accompanying regulations to allow a more efficient mechanism of mutual expansion between local governments and various levels of government. Should a greater marbling of county and city lands be allowed, we may expect to see greater opportunity and growth for cities and counties, and therefore a greater mechanism for provision of public goods and increase social welfare within the greater Commonwealth. The decision history of annexation and city independence within the State of Virginia I find to be overly political and overly concerned with short-run implications and concerns of encroachment, while the issue should be reconsidered from the standpoint of future growth and preparations for economic expansion.