When you think of the term annexation you probably relate it to the annexation of all or part of a sovereign state by another. Perhaps it holds an aggressive connotation in your mind. You may think of Hitler annexing the Austria and then the Sudetenland before World War Two. Or perhaps, a more recent example, Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. However, not all annexation is an act of aggression. It is a key component of how cities form and relate to their surrounding suburbs.
If you’ve ever wondered why you’re technically leaving Boston when you turn right at the intersection of St. Mary’s and Beacon St. in South Campus, it’s because of a famous debate in the 19th century. Alternatively, if you live off campus in Allston, you may wonder why you’re not quite escaping Boston, even if the place seems like it’s in a different universe.
The borders of a city profoundly affect its character. And for the smaller municipalities that are being subsumed or are resisting annexation, it could mean the end of local authority and assimilation as a neighborhood of the larger entity.
Causes of Municipal Annexation
One city may annex another for several reasons.
In terms of economic rational, the addition of suburbs to a city can be mutually beneficial. There are certainly gains in the efficiency of delivery for public services to the suburb. It costs much less for a large city to extend an existing service to a community than for that community to operate its own services for a small population of taxpayers. For instance, when it comes to utilities like water delivery, it makes more sense to extend the infrastructure than to operate an entirely separate plant.
For the city’s part, it gets the benefit of a broadened tax base. If extending existing infrastructure costs less than the additional revenue from the new population, then it increases its revenue. Since suburbs are often less dense than cities and contain larger properties, property taxes levied on such estates can be lucrative for the municipal government of the annexing city.
That said, it’s not always the case that new revenue exceeds the cost of extending such services to the suburb. Often the annexing government takes a short run loss. In this case, the benefit is that the annexing city subsidizes the economic growth of the suburb and gets a cut of it in the future.
There are also special cases where the city to be annexed has something of value to the larger city. Consider the extraordinary case of Los Angeles––a veteran annexer with 292 annexations under its belt––which annexed the city of San Pedro in 1909. A wily businessman named Collis Huntington tried to build a harbor in Santa Monica that he could operate as a monopoly. The famous Free Harbor Fight ensued, leading L.A. to try to find a port where it could defeat Huntington’s monopoly. It chose the harbor much further away in San Pedro, which had been already dredged and connected to L.A. by railway in 1850. In order to do this, however, L.A. needed to annex a strip of land that runs approximately twenty miles in the north-south direction by a quarter-mile wide. At the time they called this the Shoestring Strip, but it was renamed the Harbor Gateway in 1985. The resultant oddity in the map of L.A. has paid off, with L.A. harbor (in San Pedro) currently the largest in the U.S, as measured by volume that passes through it.
Economics aside, cities also have political reasons to unite. In the 1950s many cities partook in annexation in order to dilute the black vote by annexing white suburban neighborhoods.
Finally, a city might annex another if the smaller city faces financial difficulties or other problems that might delegitimize its government. Fiscal problems in the Boston suburb of Chelsea in 1991 led Boston’s mayor Raymond Flynn to offer annexation if residents of Chelsea chose to. The suburb opted not to and redesigned its government with a new charter by 1995.
This instance was an offer to help an ailing community, but Boston’s past reveals a wave of growth in the 19th century that was put on halt by a single intransigent neighboring municipality.
*Boston’s story is told in Municipal Annexation: Part II, Boston’s Growth