How do you start your own town?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 17 2005 6:21 PM

How To Start Your Own Town

Can you name it after yourself?

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The town of Clark, Texas, agreed to change its name to "DISH" on Tuesday, after the town council worked out a corporate deal that will give every resident free satellite TV. The founder of the town, L.E. Clark, was disappointed by the change. "I worked my butt off a little over a year getting it incorporated," he told the Associated Press. How do you found a town?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Get to know the neighbors. Though each state has its own rules on "municipal incorporation," in general you'll need to get 51 percent of the eligible voters in the area to go along with you. (It's easiest to start a town from scratch, as opposed to by secession; most upstarts begin as "unincorporated communities" within a larger county.) In 2000, Clark hired a surveyor to draw up boundaries for a town that would be a little bigger than a square mile and would include 254 people—of whom only 65 were registered to vote. To found Clark, Texas, he had to convince only a few dozen neighbors it was a good idea.

To incorporate a town, you'll need a lawyer who can handle the paperwork. Once you've decided on where to put your town, the first step toward You-ville is to get a petition signed by some of the people who live there. In Texas, you'll need 10 percent of the voters. In Arkansas, you need to get 75 signatures, no matter how big your town is going to be.

An application for forming a town includes the signed petition, a proposed name, and—in some cases—a proposed form of government. There are four basic town governments to choose from—mayor-council, council-manager, commission, or representative town meeting—but some states' laws limit your options depending on the size of your community. Once you complete your application, all you typically need is a "yes" vote from your neighbors and the approval of a county judge or state official. In some places, though, a town charter must be granted by vote of the state legislature.

Depending on where you live, you may face certain restrictions on your right to incorporate. Your proposed town may need to have a minimum number of people, for example, or it may need to be a minimum distance from other towns and cities. The description of where it is should be very specific—for an example, take a look at the charter-specified boundaries of Danbury, Conn. And some states will expect your town to have a unique name, so think again if you wanted to use "Fairview" or "Midway."

An unincorporated community gets its services from the county without paying municipal taxes, so frivolous town-founding can be a bad idea. Why might you want to incorporate? First, you could be heading off annexation by a nearby city. The residents of what is now DISH, Texas were afraid of being annexed by Fort Worth. If their land had become part of the city, they'd have faced the high property taxes used to cover social services in less affluent areas. Second, unincorporated communities have very little control over what gets built in the area. But towns can control their own zoning—and thereby protect their property values.

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Explainer thanks Cy Behroozi of the National League of Cities and Gary Miller of Washington University.