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The term is used in three ways.
- A survey township is simply a geographic reference used to define property location for deeds and grants as surveyed and platted by the General Land Office (GLO). A survey township is nominally six by six miles square, or 23,040 acres.
- A civil township is a unit of local government. Civil townships are generally given a name, sometimes abbreviated "Twp".
- A charter township is similar to a civil township, found only in the state of Michigan. Provided certain conditions are met, a charter township is mostly exempt from annexation from contiguous cities or villages, and carries additional rights and responsibilities of home rule.
Survey townships are generally referred to by a number based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). A reference to the township will look something like "Township 2 North Range 3 East", and the use is fully explained in the PLSS article. Townships were originally surveyed and platted by the US General Land Office using contracted private survey crews and are marked on the U.S. Geological Survey maps of the United States of America.
Townships are normally a square approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) on a side with cardinal boundaries conforming to meridians and parallels, containing thirty-six sections of one square mile each. The northern and western most tier of sections in each township are designed to take up the convergence of the east and west township boundary lines or range lines, as well as any error in the survey measurements, and therefore these sections vary slightly from being one square mile or 640 acres. Survey Townships exist in some form in all states other than the original 13 colonies, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, and Maine. Irregular or fractual townships with fewer than a full 36 sections are created where full townships cannot be laid out due to existing senior boundaries, such as Spanish/Mexican ranchos, Indian reservations, state boundary lines, etc.
This kind of township is similar to geographic townships in the province of Ontario, Canada.
The township government is a local unit of government, originally rural in application. They are geographic and political subdivisions of a county. The township is identified by a name, such as Raritan Township, New Jersey. The responsibilities and the form of the township government is specified by the state legislature.
The most common form of township government has an elected board of trustees or supervisors. Some additional offices, such as Clerk or Constable, may also be elected. The most common responsibilities include such things as road maintenance, land use planning, and trash collection. Many townships in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania provide police and fire protection, similar to what an incorporated city would provide.
In most midwestern states, a civil township often corresponds to a single survey township, but in many cases, especially in less populated areas, the civil township may be made up of all or portions of several survey townships. In areas where there are natural features such as a lakeshore or large river, the civil township boundaries may follow the geographic features rather than the survey township. Municipalities such as cities may incorporate or annex land in a township, which is then generally removed from township government. Only one state, Indiana, has township governments covering all its area and population. In other states, some types of municipalities like villages remain a part of the township while cities are not. As urban areas expand, a civil township may entirely disappear—see, for example, Mill Creek Township, Hamilton County, Ohio. In other expanding urban areas, the township may incorporate itself into a city; this can be seen in the numerous square cities of Hennepin, Anoka, and Washington Counties in Minnesota. The Montgomery County, Ohio cities of Trotwood (1996, formerly Madison Township), Huber Heights (1980, Wayne Township), and Kettering (1955, Van Buren Township) are further examples of townships incorporating into cities.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are different; these states have civil townships that are not based on the PLSS survey system, but on the older Metes and bounds survey system. A New Jersey township differs only in name from other municipalities: its boundaries are fixed, it is an incorporated body, and it is free to adopt another form of government. The federal government has frequently failed to allow for federal funding unless they went under a different name, such as this; some New Jersey municipalities, such as the Township of the Borough of Verona or Township of South Orange Village , changed their names to qualify for additional federal aid.
Utah and Nevada have areas called townships, but they are not the same as civil townships. These areas are not separate governments, but have been granted some degree of self-rule by a county.
Michigan has created charter townships as a separate type of government to allow greater flexibility for township governments to serve urbanized populations. In Michigan, as in other states with like systems (though sometimes different names), a township is an administrative division of a county, which is an administrative division of the state. Counties and townships are local organs through which state law and public policy are administered, adapted to local need to the extent the law allows. A charter township is a township that has been granted a charter, which allows it certain rights and responsibilities of home rule that are generally intermediary in scope between those of a city (a semi-autonomous jurisdiction in Michigan) and a village, which (unless it is a home-rule village) is subject to the authority of the township(s) in which it is located.
Towns and townships are considered minor civil divisions of counties by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes. According to the Census Bureau, in 2002, town or township government applied to 16,504 organized governments in the following 20 states:
This categorization includes governmental units officially designated as "towns" in the New England states, New York, and Wisconsin, some plantations in Maine and locations in New Hampshire. In Minnesota, the terms town and township are used interchangeably with regard to township governments. Although towns in the six New England states and New York, and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are legally termed municipal corporations, perform municipal-type functions, and frequently serve densely populated urban areas, they have no necessary relation to concentration of population, and are thus counted for census purposes as town or township governments. Even in states beyond New England, townships often serve urbanized areas and provide municipal services typically provided by incorporated municipalities.
The count of 16,504 organized township governments does not include unorganized township areas (where the township may exist in name only, but has no organized government) or where the townships are coextensive with cities and the cities have absorbed the township functions. It also does not include the townships in Iowa, (see Iowa townships) which are not separate governments, but are classified as subordinate agencies of county governments.
Of the 16,504 town or township governments, only 1,179 (7.1 percent) had as many as 10,000 inhabitants in the 2000 census and 52.4 percent of all towns or townships had fewer than 1000 inhabitants. There was a decline in the number of town or township governments from 16,629 in 1997 to 16,504 in 2002. Nearly all of the decline involved townships in the Midwest.
Usage by state
Because township government is defined by each state, the use of this form also varies by state. States using a township form include the following:
- Township government is used in Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wisconsin (in Wisconsin known as towns).
- The form is used in parts of Illinois and also in Nebraska, where they are sometimes referred to as precincts. Two cases of this use of terminology are Edwards and Wabash counties in Illinois.
- The New England states have a similar concept of local government, but combine the municipal and area government forms into a town; this is the locus of the town meeting. These states are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. New York also has incorporated townships, called towns, although they have fewer powers than New England towns.
- Some states formerly used township governments, or have some vestige of named townships. These include Arkansas, California, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Washington.
- Government Organization, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002 Census of Governments, Volume 1, Number 1, Government Organization, GC02(1)-1, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2002, p. 8.