Villages and Cities

Villages and Cities: Introduction

During 1999 the voters of the Town of Essex and the incorporated Village of Essex Junction considered a series of measures on whether the Village should break away from the Town to become a city or whether the Village should be disincorporated and the Town, as a single municipality, become a city. Proposals to amend the Village of Essex Junction charter to create a City of Essex Junction, and to amend the Town of Essex charter to reconstitute the Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction into the City of Essex Junction are now before the General Assembly.

The proposals brought a variety of questions to the Archives about the history of incorporated villages and cities in Vermont. The Archives’ view of the history of incorporated villages and cities is limited since many of the germane records are held at the municipal level. The following is a far from comprehensive effort to provide some context to the issue and to encourage further research. A special thanks to Jesi Moore who helped put the following research together.

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Did all of Vermont's nine current cities derive from incorporated villages within their respective towns?

No. In most cases, however, Vermont's cities were incorporated villages within their respective towns, before becoming distinct municipalities through special legislative acts.

Vergennes, Vermont’s first city, was formed from parts of New Haven, Panton, and Ferrisburgh through a 1788 legislative act. The act may have been in response to St. John de Creveoeur's 1785 letter to Ethan Allen requesting the creation of Vergennes and other municipalities in recognition of France's role in winning the American Revolution.

The City of Burlington was an unincorporated village within the Town of Burlington before becoming a city in 1864. 

Vermont’s most recent city, South Burlington was a town prior to incorporation as a city. The Town of South Burlington was, in turn, the remnant of the old Town of Burlington after the unincorporated village of Burlington incorporated as a city in 1864.

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When a village breaks away from the parent town to become a city, do town, as well as village, residents have an opportunity to vote on the city's incorporation?

The question is based on the fact that an incorporated village remains a part of its parent town; indeed, village residents are also town residents with all the associated rights, privileges, and obligations that brings.

The General Assembly has taken different approaches over time. In most cases the city incorporation act simply required a vote of the incorporated village. If the village seeking incorporation as a city sought to embrace land beyond village limits or was not incorporated, then town and village voters were provided the opportunity to vote. While our research is hardly comprehensive, what we did find suggests that city incorporation bills are more likely to succeed when the vote is restricted to village residents and more likely to fail when town and village voters decide on whether to activate the enabling legislation. Clearly this is an area that invites further research.

It appears that Winooski, the most recent incorporated village to become a city, did so through a vote of village residents only. An inquiry to the municipal clerks of Colchester and Winooski did not turn up any records of a town vote on Winooski's incorporation as a city. Under the 1921 act (Act 314) creating the City of Winooski, Colchester voters only got to decide whether to allow school district No. 7 to become part of the city (Sec. 57, Act 314).

Section 57 also directed only the village residents to vote the question; “shall the charter of the proposed city of Winooski enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont of 1921 be adopted?”

The complex and extended debates over the creation of the City of Rutland, 1880 to 1892, ultimately involved just a vote of the incorporated village, though only after the original Town of Rutland was divided into the Towns of Proctor and West Rutland. A portion of Michael Chernick's excellent paper on the incorporation fights with the Town of Rutland, delivered May 25, 1999 to the Vermont Judicial History Society meeting in Rutland is reproduced here with the permission of Mr. Chernick and Paul Gillies of the Judicial History Society.

Burlington, the first village to become a city (1864), presents a different scenario, though in this case the village of Burlington was not incorporated. In 1852 the voters of the Town of Burlington voted, under Acts 85 and 86 of 1852, on whether to accept incorporation of a City of Burlington, encompassing the area of the village, or whether to incorporate the village. In two separate votes both measures were rejected.

Act 98 of 1864 incorporated the City of Burlington, again encompassing the area of the village, contingent on a vote of approval by the Town. On January 18, 1865 town residents voted 452 to 219 to accept incorporation of the City of Burlington. The Archives does not have population figures for the village and town, though the 1860 Census reported 7,713 people living in Burlington and, in 1870, 14,387 city residents and 791 South Burlington residents. This suggests that village voters, if they spoke with a single purpose, could easily outvote the rest of the town.

The remaining portion of the old Town of Burlington became the Town of South Burlington. For more on the incorporation of the City of Burlington see Barry Salussolia, “The City of Burlington and Municipal Incorporation in Vermont,” Vermont History Vol. 54, pp. 5-19; the article is drawn from Mr. Salussolia’s UVM master’s thesis.

In 1902, Act 228 allowed for the incorporation of a city and town of St. Johnsbury. Section 2 provided for votes of town and incorporated village residents on whether to accept the act. The act was not accepted and the proposed City of St. Johnsbury was not created.

A similar result followed act 190 of 1923, “An Act to Incorporate a City of Brattleboro and to Establish a new Town of Brattleboro.” Again, town and village residents were allowed a vote on effecting the enabling legislation (Section 64). The city was not created.

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Why municipal charter proposals go to the General Assembly.

Chapter II, Section 6 of the Vermont Constitution states, in part, that the General Assembly may “grant charters of incorporation, subject to the provisions of section 69, [and] constitute towns, boroughs, cities and counties....” With the exception of the reference to Sec. 69, that language dates back to Vermont's 1777 Constitution.

Section 69 was added in 1913 and ended the practice of the General Assembly enacting private and public corporate charters through special acts, “except for such municipal, charitable, educational, penal or reformatory corporations as are to be and remain under the patronage or control of the State;...”

How the General Assembly has interpreted these sections has varied. Initially the General Assembly allowed villages to incorporate, as did fire districts, simply through local action, while retaining authority over the creation, amendment, or disincorporation of charters (see Revised Statutes of Vermont, 1840, Chapter 14). In practice, however, villages sought special acts of incorporation from the General Assembly.

The 1910 General Assembly granted the Public Service Commission the authority to review and ratify municipal charters (Act 115, 1910). The Supreme Court, however, issued an advisory opinion (86 Vt. 562 (1913)) to the effect that such a delegation of authority was unconstitutional. The power to “constitute towns, boroughs, cities, and counties” is “a trust, and requires the exercise of judgment and discretion in its execution, and no authority is given to delegate it.”

From 1963 to 1984 the General Assembly followed a process of passive review of local charter votes; that is, if the General Assembly took no action within sixty working days after local adoption of a proposed charter change, the change went into effect. Legislative committee minutes from 1963 reveal that municipalities such as South Burlington and Burlington, which were experiencing rapid growth, argued for greater flexibility in amending their charters in order to keep pace with their changing needs.

Passive review was abandoned through Act 161 of 1984 and the legislature once again ratifies or amends proposed charter amendments.

Regardless of how the General Assembly has addressed municipal charters, the judiciary has consistently recognized that municipalities are creatures of the State. Perhaps the most noted articulation of this recognition was given in Bennington v Park 50 Vt. 178 (1878). In that case, the Vermont Supreme Court reported that “...towns were created by the Legislature pursuant to express authorization conferred by the Constitution. Every power they exercise in the local administration of their affairs is expressly delegated to them by legislative enactment. They are made and unmade at the pleasure of the Legislature, and every purpose of their creation and existence is derived therefrom. They are convenient instrumentalities provided by the State for the purpose of administering those local affairs which the State has judged may be more readily and wisely done by them than it could be by the State itself.” In the same case the Court stated that towns established before the creation of the State of Vermont, such as Bennington, did not retain any special sovereign powers to themselves.

The General Assembly has exercised its authority over municipalities in various ways. In 1937, for example, it disincorporated (Acts 269 and 292) the Towns of Glastenbury and Somerset without calling for a local vote. At the time the towns had populations of seven (Glastenbury) and twenty (Somerset), though under the Constitution each had a representative in the Vermont House.

At times the General Assembly has displayed uncertainty over whether to seek a local confirming vote for a municipal special act. A noted example is Act 11 of 1848, which abolished the Town of Mansfield by annexing its territory to Stowe. The act was, as far as our records show, the result of an on-going dispute, played out through competing petitions and remonstrances to the General Assembly (see report of select committee oh House Bill No. 98, “to annex the Town of Mansfield to Stowe,” Journal of the Vermont House, 1847, pp. 302-303). When annexation actually occurred in 1848, apparently without a local vote, Mansfield's last town representative, Ivory Luce, began a sustained effort to require a local confirming vote. He finally succeeded and Act 68 of 1853 repealed the 1848 annexation “provided, that this act shall not take effect unless each of said towns, as they were prior to annexation, shall vote to adopt the provisions of this act....” The vote apparently went against Mansfield and the annexation remained in effect (the Town of Mansfield records are in the Stowe town clerk’s office).

The General Assembly has also used its constitutional authority to amend charter proposals approved by municipal voters. See, for example, original act M-25, 1986 in the Archives, which allows a comparison of the charter proposals adopted by Town of Springfield voters on May 21, 1985 and introduced as H. 584 on January 17, 1986, with the final language as enacted in Municipal Act 25 of 1986.

The first general law governing the creation of villages (1819) simply required that "whenever seven freeholders of any town in this state, in which there shall be a village as aforesaid, shall make application, in writing, to the selectmen of such town, requesting them to lay out and establish the limits and bounds of such village, it shall be the duty of such select-men, to lay out and establish the limits and bounds of such villages, and make return thereof in writing to the town clerk of such town, certified under their hands and cause the same to be recorded in such town clerk's office, and give public notice, of the limits and bounds of such village being laid out and established, by posting up notifications, in not less than three public places in such village.” This act was linked to a statutory requirement “to restrain certain animals from running at large, within villages, in this state." (See Chap. XX, Session Laws of 1819, pp. 33-36).

The following year the General Assembly amended the act to provide a mechanism for selectmen to discontinue the village upon petition by a majority of the freemen living within the village.

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This page was last updated: 2014-07-22