How is Annexation Influencing Municipal Population Change?

Monday, November 16, 2020
Smith Farms a development in Apex, NC

Four years ago, pine trees and farmland covered most of a 270-acre area just west of Apex, North Carolina.  The land was slated to be developed into a mixed residential community with single-family homes, townhomes, and apartments to meet the burgeoning demand for housing in the Raleigh-Durham Area.  The residents moving to the development would need and want access to public services comparable to the communities around them. The answer, as is often the case in high-growth areas, was annexation into the town of Apex. 

Annexations are not unusual in North Carolina. During the last decade slightly more than half the municipalities in the state have expanded their geographic boundaries via annexation. Most of the population change occurring in municipalities we’ve discussed in prior blog posts happens within the boundaries of cities, towns, and villages as those boundaries were defined on January 1, 2010. However, the influence of annexations on population change should not be overlooked.

Understanding Annexations

Within specific guidelines, municipalities may increase their geographic boundaries by annexing nearby land (adjacent or within a specific distance). In most cases, land is annexed that may have no existing residential structures and associated population at the time of the annexation. These areas may be annexed in anticipation for and as a long-term plan for residential development. In other cases, land that includes existing residential properties may be annexed into a municipality.    

Municipalities may annex land with no plan to ever include residential development within the newly annexed areas. These areas may already be or may become land set aside for commercial use (such as retail stores, warehouses, or manufacturing facilities), public utilities (such as wastewater treatment sites or water supply facilities), or greenspace (such as parks or greenway trails).  

 In addition to local government actions, the General Assembly can pass legislation to annex properties into a municipality, and the General Assembly is the only governmental body that can remove property from a municipality. The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management collects information regarding municipal annexations from municipalities through the North Carolina Demographic Information Survey which are then included in our latest population estimates (See note). 

Annexations Across NC: The Data

  • As shown in Figure 1, just over half of the 551 active municipalities (301, or 55 percent) had at least one annexation between January 1, 2010 and July 1, 2019. 
  • A third of all municipalities saw population growth as a result of those annexations—either by annexing existing housing or experiencing population growth as housing units were added after annexation.
  • There were 104 municipalities that added 25 people or more through these annexations.
  • Only 20 (4 percent) experienced gains of 1,000 or more people because of annexations.  

Municipalities by Annexation Characteristics 2010-19

Which Municipalities Saw the Greatest Impact on Growth?

Apex, a suburban community near Raleigh, added more population through annexation than any other municipality – adding 16,571 people between 2010 and 2019. Approximately 70 percent of the growth that occurred in Apex during this decade was on land that was not part of the city of Apex on January 1, 2010.  

Neighboring Cary had the second largest gain in population through annexations – adding 8,756 people in annexed areas (27 percent of its total population growth since 2010).  

Among municipalities that added at least 1,000 people through annexation, annexations accounted for at least 40 percent of all population growth for Apex (69.8 percent), Harrisburg (44.3 percent), Pinehurst (42.2 percent), Kernersville (44.8 percent), and Hope Mills (62.0 percent). 

Largest Population Gains from Annexation 2010-19

Which Municipalities Saw the Greatest Impact on Land Area?

Charlotte added the most land area from January 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019 – increasing in size by almost 10 square miles since 2010 (Figure 2).  Apex, which added the most people through annexation – added the second most amount of land area at just more than eight square miles. Overall, 35 municipalities annexed at least one square mile since 2010. 

Estimated Square Miles Annexed 2010-19

Fourteen municipalities increased in size by at least a quarter over their size in 2010. Apex increased by almost 54 percent, followed by Bermuda Run (46 percent) and Middlesex (45 percent).  Bermuda Run is located outside of Winston-Salem in Davie County while Middlesex is in Nash County (Figure 3).

Four of the top fourteen municipalities that increased land area were in Wake County: Apex (54 percent - 8.2 square miles), Fuquay-Varina (41 percent - 5.0 square miles), Knightdale (26 percent  - 1.6 square miles), and Rolesville (26 percent – 1.0 square mile). However, according to the Wake County Planning, Development and Inspection Department, the total number of acres annexed in the county has been on the decline since peaking in 2017.

Municipalities with Largest Percentage Increase in Land Area

Municipalities use annexation to manage their growth and, in many cases, facilitate population growth. Residential development may occur over a period of years so that, while many municipalities have already seen population growth on annexations that have taken place since 2010, there may be much more population growth on these newly annexed properties yet to occur. Accordingly, annexations can be a harbinger of population changes to come.  Many small towns of today may become the next large suburban communities of tomorrow. Which prompts us to consider the larger context of population change in North Carolina and the next topic we will explore – urban and rural population change.

Note: We make every effort to obtain information from all municipalities and work closely with the Secretary of State’s Land Records office to ensure all recorded annexations are included within our data and monitor legislation in the General Assembly in order to include any annexations or de-annexations initiated through that legislative body. Still, our data on annexations may be incomplete due to the fact that not all municipalities respond to our survey and not all reported annexations include complete information.

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Dr. Michael Cline
North Carolina State Demographer