A primer on using annexation to extend municipal borders, spur economic growth, and further smart development.
Updated March 31, 2023
If you had governed a city 500 years ago, you would have really only had one option for adding new land and resources to your municipal realm: bloody conquest.
Since that’s frowned upon in most states today (okay, all of them), the modern solution to growth constraints is to use constitutional powers to adopt new land into your municipality through the process of annexation.
What is Annexation?
Annexation in local government (“municipal annexation”) is the expansion of a city or town’s limits through the incorporation of new land. By annexing a piece of land, the municipality uses its constitutional powers to agree to bring the land under its authority. This means that the new land is subject to the city or town’s plans, codes, and ordinances after the annexation is complete.
Notably, this power comes with some restrictions:
- Municipalities derive their legal power to annex property from an extension of their state constitution;
- Municipalities can only annex territory that exists in the same county;
- Municipalities cannot annex territory that belongs to another city or town without that city or town’s approval;
- In many states (including Utah), annexed territory must be a continuous and uninterrupted area that shares a common boundary with the municipality. The goal is to avoid islands and peninsulas of incorporated or unincorporated land. As of 2023, however, Utah has made an exception to this requirement for when peninsulas or islands existed previous to the annexation.
Why Annexation is Useful
The reasons for annexation in most communities are mainly economic; as a population grows, it needs more land. As a local government administrator, you can help your city or town prosper through wise annexation moves. Some reasons annexation might be in your future include the following:
- Your city is urbanizing, pushing the suburbs out;
- Housing costs are rising as the population grows;
- Industrial or agricultural businesses incompatible with residential properties are drawn to the area;
- Territory around your city is being developed, and residents and businesses are in need of municipal services such as water, waste, fire, police, etc.;
- Unincorporated areas around your city need to be regulated because they are being used in ways that pose a potential threat to the health and safety of your community;
- Territory around your city is full of residents and businesses who aren’t currently sharing all of the tax burden associated with the services and benefits they get from your great community;
- Your city needs extra land for a large infrastructure project like an airport, landfill, or powerplant;
- Your city wants to guide smart development and incentivize economic growth in currently unused areas that contribute to the quality of life and economic progress of the larger community.
Planning for Annexation
If a municipality wants to annex a territory, it can do so with approval of the governing bodies that currently claim jurisdiction over the area in question (county, state, etc.). Cities and towns wishing to annex a property are also required in most states to go through the public process to give those members of the public affected by the annexation a chance to make their case.
But annexation isn’t only initiated by the municipality. Residents and businesses neighboring your city or town may petition to have their land annexed to abate their feelings of nomadic loneliness (and you know, get their trash picked up by your garbage trucks).
Regardless of who initiates it, annexation is likely something in your administration’s future. Consequently, the possibility (and terms) of annexation should be included in your municipality’s general plan OR outlined in a formal annexation policy plan.
Though effective annexation plans are nuanced and should be customized based on state law and local economic indicators, they’re best implemented when administrators adhere to these three best practices:
- WHY: The general plan indicates the terms that make a potential annexation event a positive one for the community (e.g. new land needs to dedicate proven water shares).
- WHERE: The general plan has a map that shows the areas that the municipality would favorably consider (make sure that these areas consider geography/topography, transportation networks, natural hazard potential, and existing infrastructure systems).
- HOW: The municipality and county make sure that they both interpret the statutory process to conduct an annexation in the same way.
Annexation is a powerful instrument in the toolbox of your municipality. Plan for it carefully, because with great power comes great municipal responsibility.
Call Rural Community Consultants today to get expert advice on how to adjust your general plan and grow your economy through wise annexation.
Want to Learn More?
Check out our online training modules! Note: Rural Community Consultants is able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.