The Great Defection: How New City Clusters Form to Escape County Governance

“For 50 years, scholars have known that new cities often form in clusters. Prior research suggested these clusters form in response to aggressive annexation attempts by existing cities. By pairing statistics with four in-depth case studies, we find that contrary to prior research, new urban city clusters do not form to ward off annexations. Rather, new urban city clusters form to escape county governance, incited to do so by pioneer cities that serve as a powerful catalyst for subsequent municipal incorporations in the region.

Tracing the cluster development mechanisms, we find clear evidence that the pioneer incorporating cities directly mentor and reduce transaction costs for subsequent incorporations. This mass defection from the county comes at a steep price, however-including a severely eroded county tax base, creation of difficult-to-serve pockets of unincorporated areas, and other potential impacts ranging from loss of policing expertise to diminished county credit ratings.

In 2006, a revolution began in Sandy Springs, Georgia, located in Fulton County within the Atlanta metropolitan area. Long pining for their own city, Sandy Springs residents finally achieved their goal after decades of advocacy, becoming the first new metropolitan city Georgia witnessed in decades. The secession from Fulton County had far-reaching effects, sparking multiple other municipal incorporations in the area-Milton, Johns Creek, Chattahoochee Hills-even inspiring new cities to form outside the borders of Fulton County in adjacent counties.

What stimulates the formation of such clusters? Scholars have long noted that new municipalities-new cities, towns, and villages-incorporate in clusters; the pattern is not geographically random (Schmandt, 1961; Stauber, 1965; Smith, 2008; Smith & Debbage, 2006, 2011; Waldner, Rice, & Smith, 2013). Previous scholarly work suggested annexation might play a role (Stauber, 1965; Rigos & Spindler, 1997; Smith & Debbage, 2006), yet the cause of clustering remains unknown as few scholars have actually studied the phenomenon.

Stauber (1965) was among the first to confirm the existence of clusters. He demonstrated that new municipalities tend to occur in clusters, close together in time and space. He noted that “For over a generation, the phenomenon of multiple incorporations within a single county or contiguous counties and often within a brief time-span has been observed (especially in metropolitan areas) and remarked upon, usually in a critical way, by students of local government” (12) – yet the cause of such clustering was not known.

Writing more recently, Smith and Debbage (2006) also identified distinct clustering patterns and similarly conclude that more detailed case studies of clustering are needed to further “shed light on the processes” (p. 110) that lead to the clustering. “Clearly,” they conclude, “more research is needed to better understand the complex geographic clustering effects” (p. 118).

Why should scholars and practitioners care about the clustering of new municipalities? By creating new political entities (municipalities) in a restricted geographical landscape, NIMs (Newly Incorporated Municipalities) have profound impacts on governance structure, taxes, services, and elections (Miller, 1981; Jonas, 1991; Cox & Jonas, 1993; Burns, 1994; Foster, 1997; Musso, 2001; Rusk, 2003; Waldner, Rice, & Smith, 2013).

NIMs can enhance local control, improve local government services, and provide valuable opportunities for new interagency alliances. Tieboutian supporters of public choice defend the right of residents to determine the governance that best suits their preferences, leading to new municipalities (Tiebout, 1956; Ostrom, Tiebout, & Warren, 1961).NIMs can also dramatically fragment local political geography. As will be evident through the case studies, several new NIMs within a single county can profoundly alter the local and regional governance structure, re-wiring power structures, sharply reducing county revenues through lost taxes, and cutting the county out of land use decisions.”

Published in Public Administration Quarterly | L. Waldner | 2015,