If you are not from Michigan you may have never heard of the term “charter township.” They are different from standard “general law” townships, in that:
“Charter township status is a special township classification created by the Michigan Legislature in 1947 to provide additional powers and streamlined administration for governing a growing community. A primary motivation for townships to adopt the charter form is to provide greater protection against annexation by a city.”
Annexation is not an easy thing for cities in Michigan to do, especially since 1947 – hence why most core cities in the state (except Detroit) are quite small in land area. My guess is most residents in Michigan would be shocked by how aggressive annexation laws are in favor of core cities in other states like Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina, and so on. Here’s a brief comparison of land area occupied by the five largest cities in Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas.
Michigan North Carolina Texas
City Area City Area City Area
Detroit = 143 sq. miles/Charlotte = 309 sq. miles/Houston = 637 sq. miles
Grand Rapids = 45 sq. miles/Raleigh = 145 sq. miles/San Antonio = 465 sq. miles
Warren = 34 sq. miles/Greensboro = 132 sq. miles/Dallas = 386 sq. miles
Sterling Heights = 37 sq. miles/Durham = 108 sq. miles/Austin = 305 sq. miles
Lansing = 40 sq. miles/Winston-Salem = 134 sq. miles/Fort Worth = 349 sq. miles
AVERAGE = 59.8 sq. miles/AVERAGE = 165.6 sq. miles/AVERAGE = 428.4 sq. miles
- Areas have been rounded up or down to the nearest square mile. Ranking based on 2010 Census. All data from en.wikipedia.org
One might argue, what’s wrong with wishing to remain independent? Good question.
In large measure it depends on the true intent of chartering, but it can also be judged against reality and good planning practice. Here’s what is meant by raising the question of true intent:
- If the true underlying intent of chartering was to stymie annexation in order to avoid being absorbed by a municipality that is more diverse than your township, then that is a patently bigoted reason. Granted, that such a shameful reason would likely never be stated so bluntly in the record. However, it is curious that the Michigan’s Charter Township Act of 1947 was adopted in the midst of the Second Great Migration of African-Americans to the North (1940-1970). Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw were among those receiving waves of new African-American residents from the rural South. Furthermore, immediately following World War II, was when white-flight from many of the state’s urban centers was getting underway in earnest. As a result, the Charter Township Act could be interpreted as the legislative equivalent of building the Eight Mile Wall on the north side of Detroit. Perhaps the following paragraph summarizes it best:
“Detroit remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. From the 1940s to the 1970s a second wave of black people moved to Detroit to escape Jim Crow laws in the south and find jobs. However, they soon found themselves excluded from white areas of the city—through violence, laws, and economic discrimination (e.g., redlining). White residents attacked black homes: breaking windows, starting fires, and exploding bombs. The pattern of segregation was later magnified by white migration to the suburbs.”
- If townships charter themselves primarily to avoid the higher taxes often associated with core cities, then that is a purely selfish rationale. What these communities are essentially saying is the following:
“We want to enjoy the benefits of proximity to your city and its many amenities, without committing towards helping pay for them with our tax dollars. We’ll commute in and wear out your roads, we’ll fly to/from your airport, we’ll rely on your water and sewer, and we’ll possibly use you parks, zoos, and museums, but sure as heck don’t ask us to pay for them.”
- Thirdly, there are the oft-stated rationale of maintaining the quality of schools, property values, and quality of life. By chartering, it is argued that townships can better control their own destiny in these areas by protecting them from annexation. However, if the true underlying purpose of chartering was a means to make it harder for poor people, diverse populations, and persons of color to move in and/or live there, then the intent is bigoted. Once again, it is unlikely that such vile intent would ever be clearly stated in the records.
As is evidenced from a 2019 report prepared by Governing magazine and the Census Bureau, ten (10) of Michigan’s 11 metro areas still suffer from racial segregation. This includes communities ranging in size from Niles and Muskegon on the smaller side to larger cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids. In other words, Michigan has made zero progress in the 72 years since the Charter Township Act was passed and in the 51 years since the federal Fair Housing Act was passed. While the Charter Township Act cannot be solely blamed for poor race relations among Michiganders, the act has not helped the situation improve, and it can be argued that it may have contributed to creating and/or maintaining segregated enclaves.
Perhaps, the Charter Township Act should be repealed as one step in a comprehensive effort towards improving race relations and reducing segregation in Michigan.
From a practical application standpoint, if charter townships were somehow an amazing panacea of good intentions and practice, their usefulness might be more convincing. In 26+ years as a resident of Michigan and working as a planner for charter townships both in the private and public sectors, their advantage has yet to be proven. In fact, more significant drawbacks than benefits seem evident, including:
Charter townships, in fact all nearly all townships, seem to fall into the trap of trying to create their own little fiefdom. Charter Townships take this even further with city-like services that parasitically feeds off the nearby core city — thereby weakening the heart of the region by siphoning away a proportion of the population, taxes, grants, state and federal funding, expertise, and other resources that go into operating a complex urban municipality. Lansing Charter Township is probably the most extreme example (but certainly not alone) in seeking to create its own pseudo-downtown skyline and its own shopping/entertainment district along the narrow strip of land it still governs along US 127 virtually equidistant to both downtown Lansing and downtown East Lansing. How exactly does that help the region? Or the other two downtowns?
By siphoning off potential investments and population, charter townships harm the very entity that they depend on for their existence and economic well-being. Frankly, most, if not all, charter townships in Michigan would not amount to a hill of beans if it wasn’t for the core city they are located adjacent to or near.
Some folks, particularly the Michigan Township Association, will argue that having a township every six (6) miles allows for better representation. That may have been true in the horse and buggy days, but in the modern world many townships have become duplicative, bureaucratic, and inefficient with wacky/splintered boundaries (see maps below), odd joint-operating agreements, and in some cases tax structures that are even higher than cities and villages. Do we really need another layer of public administration every six miles in the 21st Century? Really? If so, Michigan must be terribly poor at hiring and/or training good administrative personnel, because most other states seem to be doing just fine without so much duplication.
I would also argue that few people actually say they live in places like Lansing Charter Township, Ann Arbor Charter Township, Grand Rapids Charter Township, Midland Charter Township, or Kalamazoo Charter Township. And if anyone does, they likely work for that community or are an elected official. And, it is a virtual certainty that nobody traveling to northern Michigan announces, “I can’t wait to get to So and So Charter Township for vacation!” The majority of the time, vacationers will refer to the prominent city in the area like Traverse City, Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Elk Rapids, Glen Arbor, and so on. Or, they might refer to a particular lake such as Walloon Lake, Crystal Lake, Long Lake, or Houghton Lake.
Here are a few maps depicting how the existence of splintered and disconnected charter townships can Balkanize an area geographically and make for disjointed and confused planning/public service efforts that can vary from block-by-block. With many of townships not even having their own named post office or one that is named for an unincorporated community within their borders (i.e. Okemos and Haslett in Meridian Charter Township or Holt in Delhi Charter Township), the whole political, planning, emergency services process can be very confusing to locals and visitors alike.
If the Charter Township Act were not to be repealed, here are some suggested solutions to reduce the duplication of services, inefficiencies created by charter townships and proposed ways to strengthen Michigan’s core cities:
- Streamline and soften the annexation requirements, particularly when the city/village is already providing services to the township like police, fire, water, sewer, etc.
- Require city hood if the township population exceeds a certain threshold.
- Require splintered and disconnected townships such as Lansing Charter, Midland Charter Township, and Kalamazoo Charter Township to merge with adjacent cities.
- Require remaining townships that occupy less than a certain number of square miles to merge with an adjacent city or in rural areas with an adjacent township.
- Allow neighboring rural townships to merge.
- De-charter those townships that meet the above criteria, but do not become a city or merge with one.
- Establish a five year maximum transition period for a charter township to fully become a city.
- Prohibit township names that duplicate adjacent city names such as Grand Rapids Charter Township, Lansing Charter Township, DeWitt Charter Township, Midland Charter Township, Royal Oak Charter Township, etc. to reduce confusion.
I appreciate your perspective, but found the analysis of reasons for charter townships to be incomplete at best. It also fails to consider that the city government structure may be less efficient, less responsive, and less transparent than the charter township structure.