How does an area get incorporated as a city?

I live in a suburb that is undergoing massive redevelopment into a “walkable urban employment and residential center.” It is an unincorporated area within the county. Suppose we wanted to make it an incorporated city, so I could be mayor. How does that happen? Does the county have to allow it or is it up to the state? Who would have to bring the proposal forward? Does it start with a petition?

I’m not seriously planning this, I am just curious about how cities and towns get established.

For the eleventy-thousandth time, State Law governs this. There are 50 answers for the U.S.; my hunch is that Australian states and territories and Canadian provinces and territories are likewise the places to look for the answer.

I will hazard a guess that it’s generally true that you demonstrate widespread interest in creating a city/town/village via petition(s), that this/these get forwarded to the Legislature, where a member representing the area introduces a bill creating the aforementioned city/town/village. But the devil is in the details, and odds are that each state/province/territory has differing requirements from any and all others on what precisely needs to be shown to get the ball rolling.

(Since the OP lists his location as in Virginia):

Virginia is unusual in that all cities are “independent cities” – direct political subdivisions of the state and not within their surrounding counties.

Virginia also has incorporated towns which are part of the counties they are in.

There is no formalized incorporation process in Virginia; the residents of the place that wishes to incorporate must petition the legislature directly for a municipal charter.

30 years or so ago, I lived in an area that was trying to incorporate. Here’s how the process went. YMMV.

Some residents of the area got a petition going. The area to be incorporated was defined in the area.

Once the petition got enough signatures they submitted it to the state legislature. The legislature worked with the county government and the local residents to determine what kind of services the new town offered, and what the county would still provide.

Therein followed a long gestation period where the structure of the local government, services provided and tax rates were more precisely defined. Then the local residents petitioned to have a vote.

Once local residents voted to request to incorporate, the state legislature voted to authorize it. At that point, the local officials were elected, municipal ordinances drawn up, etc.

Easy peasy. Allow approximately five years.

Footnote: 20 years later the town voted to disincorporate and turn everything back over to the county.

What are the benefits of being incorporated, and why would a town vote to disincorporate?

Being incorporate lets you set your own rules and manage your own services. So you can decide how many police you need, elect your own mayor, change laws regarding the types of businesses you’ll allow, etc. In theory, you might get better service than you would as part of a larger county entity. Depending on where you are located, you might have some control over tax rates (but you might not).

The downside is that you have to pay for all of it.

Here’s how it’s done in Virginia.

The biggest advantage in the modern era, I’d guess, is more local control over zoning, instead of decisions being made by the county, presumably for purposes of Nimby-ism.


That’s exactly the way it was in my little anecdote. The city was encroaching on our little neighborhood, and the residents wanted to shut it out and control their own zoning. Two decades later, the decided the costs of the municipal services was too high, and the taxes were getting too high because all the development (both good and bad) had bypassed the new town for other parts of the county.