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Have townships outlived their usefullness?


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I've been mulling over this one for awhile and I've reached a philosophical wall, so I thought i'd run it by the forum to guage a reaction.

Definitions/History - information from Wikipedia

Townships were established as a means to distribute, organize and govern land for westward expansion of the U.S. under the Northwest Ordinance introduced under the articles of confederation July 13, 1787 and confirmed by the U.S. under the constitution August 7, 1789.

Of specific import to townships under the Northwest Ordinance was the Land Ordinance of 1785 (May 20)

The 1785 ordinance laid the foundations of land policy in the United States of America until passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The Land Ordinance established the basis for the Public Land Survey System. The initial surveying was performed by Thomas Hutchins, after he died in 1789, responsibility for surveying was transferred to the Surveyor General. Land was to be systematically surveyed into square townships, six miles on a side. Each of these townships was sub-divided into thirty-six sections of one square mile or 640 acres (259 hectares). These sections could then be further subdivided for sale to settlers and land speculators.

The ordinance was also significant for establishing a mechanism for funding public education. Section 16 in each township was reserved for the maintenance of public schools. Many modern schools today still are located in section sixteen of their respective townships, although a great many of the school sections were sold to raise money for public education. In theory, the federal government also reserved sections 8, 11, 26 and 29 to compensate veterans of the Revolutionary War, but examination of property abstracts in Ohio indicates that this was not uniformly practiced.



Civil Townships in Michigan:

Defined by their survey boundaries, Civil townships are a subordinate form of government to Counties.

I don't know off the top of my head (and wikipedia doesn't know either) what the full range of political power of civil townships is in Michigan.

Charter Townships in Michigan:

A Charter Township is a form of local government in the U.S. state of Michigan. In general, a township in Michigan, like a county, is a statutory unit of government, in that they only have those powers expressly provided for or implied by state law. On the other hand, cities and villages in Michigan are vested with home rule powers, meaning that they can do almost anything not prohibited by law.

In Michigan, Charter Townships were created to forstall the ability of neighboring municipalities to anex


As of April 2005, there were 131 charter townships in Michigan.[1] A township with a population of 2,000 or more may incorporate as a charter township and become a municipal corporation, which possess all the powers of a non-charter township in addition to those specified by the Charter Township Act of 1947.

more info here


My primary issues with townships have to do with sprawl and inefficency, but if anyone can think of any other problems, please bring it up here.

From my perspective, townships seem to run counter to regionalization. The limited power of township governments precludes their ability to form coalitions and join regional governments without substantial approval of their populations (most likely by ballot proposal).

This also plays directly into the efficiency point. Because they need approval to get anything done, it seems like things would generally take longer to get through government. Townships also create another layer of government which runs counter to the idea of small, efficient government.

On top of this, there seems to be a money grab going on in township politics. Because their boundaries are limited as compared to the size of counties, more total area is needed to be developed for a township to feel it is economically viable.


It's my opinion that it's time to do away with townships, charter and civil.

Legislation would be introduced (most likely initiated by petition since government doesn't have the balls to trim itself) that would set a timeframe to phase them out.

Developed areas within townships (primarily charter townships) would have the option of:

A. Incorporating into a full municipality

B. annexation by an existing municipality

C. reverting to county control

Un-incorporated leftover areas would then revert to the county which would have to perview to set up and maintain essential services and would be required to come up with a master plan (mostly land use) for the county.


The intended consequences of shedding our townships is to help slow sprall and consolidate services. By bringing unicorporated lands under singular control, the county would be better suited to concentrate development to the most efficient and economically logical corridors. There would be less of a need to develop evey square inch of land as there would be efficient, central control of resources and services.

In addition, removing an entire layer of government would make govenment efficient, aiding economic development, reducing beauracarcy, decreasing the government payroll and making the tax system more efficient. Democrats would support it as a way of achieving better land-use and Republicans would support it as adhering to their goals of smaller government.

So what are the thoughts of the forum?

What consequences have I missed? Would this be seriously detrimental, or is it a better idea than I thought?

I have no plans to make this plan come to fruition, but if someone were to proceed with the intention of making it a reality, how would they go about doing that?

Are there any precedents out there?

YAY 50 posts!

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I'll actually read your post later, but I can say that I think CHARTER townships have outlived their usages. Actually, they should have never been created. They were created soley to keep cities from being more influential. In fact, the current Michigan constitution sets them up almost equally with incorporated municipalities (cities and villages), which doesn't make any sense to me. Charter townships are basically given the full power of incorporated cities, but with MUCH less responsibility. It seems like a backdoor way to take away power from central cities, and it's no surprise that this came about in the mass migration from city to suburb that occured in Michigan. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this got into the constitution, back then, by act of a suburban Detroit legistator(s). Charter townships far from single-handedly hurt Michigan cities, but they were just the straw that eventually broke the camel's back.

If you want to see a ridiculous example of a charter township look no further than Lansing Charter Township. It's literally five non-contiguous tracts of land scattered in and directly adjacent to Lansing that don't function as much of anything but neighborhoods yet they get their own governance.

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What a great topic! I have lots of opinions about these things. I agree with Lmich. I think Charter Twps helped lead to the cities Michigan has today. But I think they hurt Michigan cities even more now. Every major Michigan city, has a disadvantage nationally because of funding. Every larger Michigan city, and even the midsized ones have land areas that are about 1/2 to 1/3rd the area of cities of like populations. Because every inch of Michigan has been incorporated for so long, our cities are not able to compete as well. Could have much bigger populations by now, which in turn could mean more notariaty, and federal funding. Helping to ease the heavy burden and negative media image brought to them.

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wow I artictulated myself poorly in that. What I was trying to say with all those runon sentences, is that Michigan Cities cover very little land. It is next to impossible for them to expand to the size of thier national counterparts. The township laws in MI have everything to do with that.

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I think they should get rid of charter townships. Revert all townships back to county control. But still keep "townships" to help with land surveying and the stuff they were created for. They should have no form of government whatsoever.

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Unfortunately, charter townships have built up too much political clout to be pushed aside. They are an impressive lobby in Michigan government. In fact, I'd say they have more influence than the coalition of "big city" mayors in Michigan.

As an example, our new mayor here in Lansing said:

During his speech, Bernero said township supervisors should "have their heads knocked together" for not supporting regionalism. He added the state's constitutional municipal structure makes it a "joke" to the rest of the nation.

The Michigan Townships Association immediately fired back:

"Remarks such as yours have no place in civilized political discourse and are not without consequence in furthering intergovernmental collaboration," a portion of Knotts' letter reads.

Bernor answered back:

"It's an iron rule of bureaucracy that people don't give up their turf," said Bernero, who has been stressing consolidation of some regional services since taking office Jan. 1 in Lansing. "It may take some higher power to get their attention to make it possible for them to focus on the potential efficiencies of regionalization."

As you can see, Michigan townships even have their own lobby:


I fear that any proposal to strip charter townships of their power wouldn't even make it to the floor of the legislature for a debate. They've dug their heels in.

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That is a very real statement Lmich. In my opinion Ch. Twps further add to the mediocrity of not only our major cities but also our state. Our cities need more power to improve themselves. Charter Townships are primarily neighborhoods of NIMBY's standing in the way of progress.

I have nothing to back that up, it's just a personal opinion of mine.

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This is a pretty interesting topic. I've learned quite a bit that I didn't know about townships. I used to work for a Charter Township and never knew (or at that time, cared) what the distinction was.

Is it a safe assumption that, by nature of their design, most Charter Townships are then buffer zones between metropolitan zones and rural zones?

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Not always. Especially in the Detroit area. Canton twp has about 90,000 people in it, and is a regional retail draw. It's well within the DTW metro. Macomb Twp is the fastest growing in the state. It is however more towards the fringes. Closer to home you have Plainfield twp. Which when driving thru looks very much like it's own city, and is something like the fourth or fifth most populous municipality in the Kent- Ottawa county areas. There are quite a number of them In Oakland county that have a large population, but you probally just have heard of them as cities. Alot of them have gotten so big, they even have their own police forces.

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Although I don't currently live in Michigan (I was born and raised in Alpena), I can say that charter townships in Michigan are almost universally a recipe for the worst kind of sprawl.

My wife spent highschool in Shelby Twp, off of 25 mile near Dequindre, and she hated it. most of northen Shelby Twp is nothing but crappy subdivisions and shopping centers (luckily downtown Rochester is nearby). Well, a couple years ago my mother-in-law moved a couple miles to the east to Washington Twp (off of 26 mile near M-53). Washington Twp is not much to love, but their recently approved Masterplan is decent (for a charter twp.) and there is some fairly dense, small lot, "urban" development happening within the hamlet of Washington. Shelby and Washington Twps are in north metro Detroit.

But I agree that charter twps should be axed and let the developed areas become cities/villages and have undeveloped or lightly developed areas go back to the counties.

I'm so glad we don't have charter twps here in Illinois. We just have 'villages' with 76,000 populations. ;)

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Wow, it seems that everyone feels pretty much the same way about townships and I would concur. A majority of our development work has been in townships and through this work we see the same kind of things happening in almost all the townships.

Many of these townships have the preservation of rural character as a central tenant of their masterplan. They accomplish this preservation through two-acre lots, berms in front of their strip malls, minimum 35 foot front yard setbacks and lots of landscaping. This has led to nothing except suburban sprawl and certainly has not preserved rural character. Recently these places have introduced cluster development, which has done nothing but exasperate the problem.

As stated in earlier posts, townships have created another layer of very powerful government, full of entitlements - and they squarely stand in the way of decent regional planning and collaboration. Add this to the thousands of homeowners associations within the townships, that have their own quasi-governments, and it is no wonder why everything looks so uniformly bad. These places are havens for people who vehemently want less government, and unfortunately they only contribute to more government.

We will never see decent planning at a regional level (we probably will not even see regional transit) until some of this government is stripped down, so it is no doubt time for townships to go into the history books as yet another bad idea.

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Charter townships provide many the benefits of living within an organized municipality without having to pay any extra taxes. I know there are a lot of haters of townships out there and I must say I'm not entirely in love with them either. I do believe they serve as a niche in the market. With responsible leaders, many can become fine communities but the problem is most are run by an outdated vanguard of officials with antiquated ideas of community who seem to have a confusion of what sprawl actually is, publically saying they desire to prevent it but then turning around and approving site plans for plazas and chain stores with seas of parking lots. I believe Townships can function in some sort of acceptable and responsible manner but many at this point are failing to do so.

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The problem is that they serve as local tax havens/principalities in practice, which almost certainly deincentivizes regional cooperation. I don't have much of a problem with regular civil/general law townships. But, the creation of charter townships did nothing more than foster and grow our divisions. The inherent nature of a charter township is that they were created as "buffers" to incorporated municipalities. What they do is greatly reduce a central cities ability to spearhead regional cooperations, something central cities should have the ability to do for the simple fact of being the original municipalities. The whole point of charter townships was to coddle isolationists who'd fled the cities for quite a few reasons that we wrong in more ways than one. Many (read 'most') continue to act as such. They've built many social and economic barriers, and in some cases, phyiscal barriers, to keep particular people out. I don't think there is any way to fix this without abolishing these type of duplicities, altogether. I think one can trace the sharp decline of regionalism in our state almost directly to the creation of charter townships.

And, it should really be no mystery why our metro areas have some of the worst regionalism tools of any state in our area, and perhaps the nation. Instead of competing with the nation and internationally, we are perpetually bogged down in this backwards, local infighting with cities in our own area! How ridiculous is that? And, many people outside of this state notice this instantly when they move here. We have some of the strongest township-level governments outside of the Northeast, where towns, as they are called, are equal to cities. I think we need to give most of the power of our unincorporated townships back to the county. County governmental powers in Michigan are down-right anemic, and almost to the point of being irrelevent. This is pretty scary to me.

As an example, I've spent quite a few time in Metropolitan Vegas over my life. In Nevada, the townships are nothing more than survey townships used for statistical purposes by the Census Bureau, and the counties are given the power, and they do a good job with it. For instance, Vegas has a metro-wide police force, metro-wide school system...not this silly idea of having all of these duplicities of things that are supposed to be metro-wide services right next door to one another that don't cooperate.

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Yeah, the size of the township doesn't have much to do with this. Lansing Charter Township is only 4.9 square miles, and 8,500 residents split between 5 non-contiguous tracts of land, and it has it's own police and fire departments, which don't make any sense, at all, considering that Lansing actually surrounds two of these pieces of the township, not to mention the remaining 3 pieces lie directly adjacent to the city, and in some cases are cornerd in on three sides by the city of Lansing. It's this type of duplicity of services that just seems ridiculous to me.

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I sent off a letter to the senate majority leader Mike Bishop a while back about this (I might be convinced to post it here, however, note that I am shy).

It's possible, however improbable that someone was paying attention:


in relation to


Sorry if the news stories are a little old, I've been busy.

One of my favorite lines:

Some local leaders are very vocal about their disapproval.

The Bedford Township Supervisor has already sent a strongly worded letter to legislators. He says this move would take away people's rights.

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Even talking of consolidating some services between certain townships is heresy to the township lobby, let along a wholesale restructure. It's really wishful thinking considering how much of Michigan's population lives in townships. Again, they have a very powerful lobby, and to tell you the truth, it would fracture the Michigan GOP, with good reason, as it would give some power back to the historically Democratic urban areas of the state. It's a heck of a tough sell.

Here is the website of the official townships lobby, the Michigan Townships Association:


Read one of the very first things on their front page recently:

House Legislation Wrongfully Attacks Townships

Michigan Townships Association Legislative Liaison David Bertram issued the following statement in response to the introduction of House Bill 4780, and companion bills:

"The House Democratic plan introduced Thursday is an absolute direct attack on township government. MTA is outraged and disappointed by the introduction of this legislation. Furthermore, the manner in which this was introduced-without any dialogue or warning-is insulting."


It's down-right hilarious as they give little to no details, and just seem generally offended that anyone propose any changes to government. lol

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I don't see how Republicans can balk at this.

You have a party, or at least a movement, one of whom's primary tenets is the virtue of small government (one of the tenets I agree with directly).

I'm going to cry foul if I see the majority of the rank and file attacking this in the open. I can understand not coming out and supporting it directly for fear of incurring the wrath of the townships, but to submit to power compromising ideology is hypocrisy.

If anything I see potential for democrats to score points on this one. In the next budget session, they can use this as a negotiating tool to get some things they want, or they can completely debase any republican proposals.

wait and see

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