I am a civil engineer by trade, and a large amount of my work and a majority of my municipal clients are located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. The actual area of “Hampton Roads” can take one of any number of geographical limits; however, one of the more formal designations of what constitutes “Hampton Roads” was defined by the formation of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, a.k.a. the HRPDC. The HRPDC is is a regional organization representing the local governments within this area of Virginia.
The Hampton Roads area as defined by the HRPDC (which is basically all of Southeastern Virginia) consists of the “Middle Peninsula” to the north, comprised of only Gloucester County; “The Peninsula” in the center, which includes the cities of Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, and Poquoson, as well as the counties of James City (yes James City is a county), and York; and the “Southside” to the south, where you have the counties of Surry, Southampton and Isle of Wight, the Town of Smithfield, and the cities of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach.
Looking at a modern map of Hampton Roads you will notice there are A LOT of cities that look like counties, with very large land areas. This begs the question, why does the Hampton Roads area look like it does, with no counties in the far corner of the Commonwealth and cities the size of counties? No other parts of Virginia look or behave this way.
For an answer, I will share a quick history lesson. The reason it is like this way stems from both land wars and the fear of land wars.
Prior to 1950, Hampton Roads was composed of large Counties with small cities along its coastline, and looked much like any other area of the Commonwealth. As shown on the previous map, there were a number of additional counties in the area, such as Warwick, Elizabeth City, Nansemond, Norfolk (the county), and Princess Anne.
In Virginia, cities are immune from annexation by each other -- counties and towns are not. In the 1950's and early 1960s, cities would attempt to annex portions of their neighboring counties, which in turn threatened to completely surround smaller cities, suffocating their viability as independent entities. Residents of counties and smaller cities feared future annexation suits from more populated cities; in this battle of municipalities, the residents of counties and small cities became allies and formed big (in terms of area) cities of their own.
A brief rundown of “how we got here”:
- In 1952, Elizabeth City County merged with Hampton and the Town of Phoebus to become the independent city of Hampton.
- In 1952, Warwick County became the independent City of Warwick, then consolidated with Newport News to become he independent city of Newport News in 1958.
- In 1952, Poquoson became an incorporated town. The town became an independent city in 1975 effectively to protect Poquoson from potential annexation suits by the adjacent City of Hampton.
- In 1963, Norfolk County consolidated with the independent City of South Norfolk to form the independent City of Chesapeake.
- In 1963, Princess Anne County consolidated with the independent City of Virginia Beach.
- In 1972, Nansemond County became the independent City of Nansemond, then consolidated with Suffolk to become he independent city of Suffolk in 1974.
And with that, the modern map of Hampton Roads was born. It amazes me how recent all these major map changes happened. This also helps to explain why driving around town you see a lot of "things", especially roads, with the names Warwick, Elizabeth City, Nansemond, Norfolk, and Princess Anne.
Additionally, it helps give some insight as to why it’s often hard for these local governments to get along. Why does every municipality think that the other municipalities are out to get them? Because for years, they were out to get each other!
Hope this was insightful.