Some conservative areas are looking to extricate themselves from the liberal city and county governments that run them, but they face a looming question of how to pull off that declaration of independence.
The process of seceding or incorporating to form a new city varies widely from state to state given the idiosyncrasies of local laws, but some requirements appear frequently across different states.
Most states require some form of election on the issue, according to a summary of municipal incorporation procedures by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
In Arizona, however, residents can incorporate through a petition without an election. Two-thirds of registered voters in the area must sign a petition stating they are in favor of forming a new city, and the petition is sent to the county board of supervisors.
In some states such as Alaska, residents must show a need for a new city, something that becomes more difficult if the proposed area is within an organized borough.
Another common requirement is an incorporation committee to explore the feasibility and merits of forming a new city. California, Nevada, and Vermont all involve such committees in their incorporation processes.
The process can become a lengthy one lasting years, especially if the local government fights residents on the incorporation effort.
In California, for example, the incorporation committee must define and articulate incorporation goals, raise funds, collect signatures, compile the application, work with the Local Agency Formation Commission, testify at hearings, and negotiate changes in the proposal. Even after all that has been accomplished, the proposal may take a year of formal review.
Many states require a new city to have a minimum number of residents in the proposed area.
In Colorado, a new city must have more than 2,000 people. In Illinois, the minimum number of residents is 2,500. Some states have much lower minimums such as Kentucky, which requires only 300 residents, and Missouri, which requires a mere 200. New York, a state where the incorporation process can be extremely challenging, nevertheless does not have a minimum number of residents.
The state legislature often has a role in approving a new city, a factor that can be quite disruptive to the process and even politicize the issue. If the majority party or the governor decides the new city does not support their policy goals, they could refuse to grant a charter to a new city, even if most residents want it.
In North Carolina, any area that wants to incorporate needs approval from the North Carolina State Assembly. Likewise in Florida, residents must submit a feasibility study to the state legislature, which will ultimately determine whether the city charter is approved.
In Georgia, an area that wants to secede must follow several steps: the community must form a nonprofit organization, have a minimum number of residents, and commit to providing at least three services such as law enforcement, fire emergency services, electric or gas services, among other requirements. Then they must get a state lawmaker to introduce a bill in the general assembly to have the proposed city put on the ballot.
State lawmakers have proposed a bill to incorporate Buckhead, an affluent Atlanta neighborhood that for decades has kept the city afloat with taxes from its wealthy residents but is now the target of rising crime.
A complication for new cities particular to Georgia law is that the state constitution prohibits establishing new, independent school systems. Lawmakers have tried several times in recent years to pass legislation to scrap that rule, but none has passed. That means that residents of Buckhead City would seemingly have to somehow attend Atlanta schools, which would require Atlanta’s permission — even though the state constitution also guarantees an education to all children.
“The most basic reason that areas attempt to incorporate is to exercise local control over community character and destiny,” the Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) wrote in a 2016 guide for residents of unincorporated areas in Washington state.
“The idea of local control with its accompanying responsibilities may not, however, be appealing to those areas that are content with county government or that desire to eventually become a part of a nearby incorporated community,” the MRSC wrote.
Forming a new city and breaking away from an oppressive local government has no cookie-cutter process. Each locality presents its own unique intricacies and challenges that residents must be willing to navigate and overcome.
Despite the many obstacles, however, many determined bands of Americans in areas around the U.S. have shown over the years that they believe the difficulty is worth the trouble.