Small Town, Inc.: Local Law Impedes Communities from Incorporating

Jimmy MagahernNovember 1, 2023
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Aerial view of Anthem, looking northbound along Interstate 17; Photo courtesy
Aerial view of Anthem, looking northbound along Interstate 17; Photo courtesy

A new state law makes it even harder for small communities to incorporate.

In August, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to put the incorporation of Vail on the ballot for the November 2023 election, after a group collected more than 2,000 valid signatures from its roughly 14,000 residents. It was the third time they’d tried to incorporate, seeking more control over development – a driver for small communities.

Others have had less luck. Residents of New River have tried four times since the ’70s to incorporate their small community along the I-17, in attempts to ward off the encroachment of developments like Anthem. Each time, the efforts have failed – partially because any area within 6 miles of Phoenix must first either receive the city’s approval to incorporate or give it 120 days to consider annexation, which grounded initial efforts. On the last drive in 2019, which included the neighboring Desert Hills, residents failed to gain enough certified votes.

A revised state statute, 9-101.01, has made it even harder for a small community to incorporate if a group of homeowners opt out. Previously, these “county islands” could remain unincorporated if the surrounding community met the population qualifications for incorporation (at least 1,500 for a town, 3,000 for a city). Now, such groups can block the incorporation of the surrounding area, too – if, per the statute, “the unincorporated territory [would be] completely surrounded by incorporated areas.”

“If any of these ‘planned community associations’ that fall inside your boundaries say no, you’re stuck and can’t proceed,” says Dave Thompson, a New River resident who spearheaded his community’s last effort.

Thompson worries wildcat developers – like those who have been creating five-home subdivisions within the Rio Verde Foothills to skirt around the requirement they demonstrate a long-term water supply before building – may block incorporation to escape county scrutiny, even if the majority of area homeowners desire it. He says lobbyists from the Central Arizona Home Builders Association pushed for the change in the statute.

Tom Belshe, director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, a membership organization of the state’s incorporated municipalities, verifies that the Home Builders Association lobbied for the revision, but says he’s yet to see any cases taking advantage of it. He says the bigger blocks to incorporation are typically ruralists opposed to an additional level of government – even if it convenes in their own backyard, instead of Downtown.

“I have this argument with my own father,” he says. “He lives in an unincorporated area in Arizona, and he likes living out there in a log home, with no paved road. Me, I like my sidewalks and trash pickup.”

Thompson says the cost of not incorporating is potentially losing autonomy as cities expand. “The people that object to it, when the developments start getting closer and closer and there’s more traffic on the street, more horses getting hit, they move even further out,” he says. “It’s basically rural flight.”