How Are Towns Incorporated?

how are towns incorporated?

Have you ever noticed those little green signs that say, “Welcome to the Town of _____, incorporated 1898?” They exist on many roads and indicate that travelers are passing into a new town. Every time I see one, I wonder, what does it mean for a town to be incorporated and how are towns incorporated?

What Does it Mean for a Town to Be Incorporated?

Incorporation is the process by which a community gains recognition from a state. Municipalities that are incorporated are generally governed by elected officials and typically have traditional powers of government, such as policing, zoning, and eminent domain.

The exact definition and process of incorporation can vary state to state. Additionally, each state has their own terminology. A “town” in New York can be different than a “town” in California. The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia has compiled a list of the varying processes of incorporation for each state.

How Are Towns Incorporated?

Once a community decides it wants to gain official recognition with the state, it must file a formal request for incorporation. Each individual state has distinct procedures, but in general, communities desiring incorporation must meet specific population requirements and obtain signatures or votes from a designated percentage of residents.

Below are a few selected examples of incorporation procedures:

Arkansas:

A community may incorporate by filing a petition that describes the area for incorporation.  

The petition must be signed by either 200 people or a majority of the electorate, whichever is greater. The area petitioning cannot be within a 5-mile radius of any other existing municipality.

Connecticut:

Cities can only be incorporated via the state legislature. All Connecticut territory is currently incorporated as a town or a larger municipality.

Missouri:

A community can incorporate if 15% of its electorate signs a petition. The county will then call an election, and if a majority of voters in the community agree, the town will incorporate. If it is unincorporated territory, the community must have at least 500 residents.

How to Start Your Own Town

The best way to start your own town is by grassroots organizing in an unincorporated territory. Of course, your first step should be to ascertain your state’s specific procedure for incorporation, but no matter what, you will have to get people on your side.

You will need to go out and talk to your neighbors. If you live in Missouri or the many other states that require a petition, you will have to convince the people that live around you to sign your incorporation request. Make sure to have a concrete plan ready. You must know the exact area that will comprise the new town. You should decide on a basic structure of government; do you want a mayor, a city council, or something else? You will also need a name for your new town, though that can be the fun part. Maybe you want to name it after yourself!

After the petition is filed, you will want to begin electioneering. In many states, the petition is only the beginning. In order to found your new town, incorporation will likely need to win an election. Keep up the door-knocking!

In the course of convincing neighbors, you may be faced with some skepticism. Why, exactly, should your town be incorporated?

Pros and Cons of Incorporating a Town

Pros:

  • Your town can prevent annexation by another city and being subject to their government and taxes
  • Your town can enact its own zoning laws
  • Your town can elect its own government and operate its own services

Cons:

  • Once incorporated, your town will have to raise taxes to pay for its operations and services
  • Your town may have to deal with issues like eminent domain abuse, which can happen when companies use incorporation to take over towns (See Elon Musk’s plans for Starbase, Texas)