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What purpose do townships serve?

Ben Steelman

Not much, really. In North Carolina, townships exist primarily as convenient geographical subdivisions of counties. They have no local officials of their own.

Newcomers from other states, such as New Jersey or Pennsylvania, are often confused by the terminology, said Chris May, executive director of the Cape Fear Council of Governments. There, townships handle many of the functions that counties do in North Carolina. In the Tar Heel State, however, townships mainly serve to draw voting precincts or to sort property tax records, May said.

In Brunswick and Pender counties, the County Commissioners are elected by districts, but the districts have little relation to township lines. In New Hanover County, voters generally notice townships only around election time; local precincts are named after the township in which they’re located: i.e., Wilmington 1, Cape Fear 2, Masonboro 3, etc.

Things weren’t always this way; in fact, for a few years in the 1800s, townships were a pretty big deal.

They were created under the state Constitution of 1868, written (under congressional order) by a mostly-Republican state convention. The convention’s delegates wanted to reform North Carolina’s system of local government, which had been controlled by tight little “courthouse rings.” County government had been controlled mostly by justices of the peace who were named by state legislators, rather than being elected directly by the people.

As the history books put it, a lot of the delegates were familiar with local government in other states, (Translation: many of them were “Carpetbaggers,” in the unkind terminology of ex-Confederates.) In this case, they decided to adopt something like the township system as it existed in Pennsylvania.

Under the Constitution of 1868, each county was subdivided into townships. Each township was supposed to elect two justices of the peace and a clerk, each for two-year terms. These officials would form a three-member governing board, who would collect local taxes and have charge of certain government functions, such as building roads and bridges. Each township would also have a three-member school committee, which acted as a local board of education, and one or more constables, who acted as part-time law enforcement officers.

Democrats and ex-Confederates loathed this system, and when they regained control of the legislature in 1877, they moved fast to dismantle it. Under constitutional amendments ratified in 1877, townships lost most of their powers, including taxation; the township clerk position was abolished, and justices of the peace were no longer elected directly. The school committees lingered for a few more years, but their work was taken over by county boards of education.

Counties retain the right to name townships, draw their boundaries and change their names, noted New Hanover assistant county attorney Kemp Burpeau, but aside from some stray local regulations, townships have no function under North Carolina’s General Statutes.Old deeds used to specify the township in which a piece of real estate was located, Burpeau added, but that’s no longer required.

For what it’s worth, here are the townships for some of our local counties:

New Hanover: Wilmington, Cape Fear, Federal Point, Harnett, Masonboro

Brunswick: Lockwood Folly, Northwest, Shallotte, Smithville (which was Southport’s name until 1889), Town Creek, Waccamaw.

Pender: Burgaw, Canetuck, Caswell, Columbia, Grady, Holly, Long Creek, Rocky Point, Topsail, Union.

User-contributed question by:
Tracy Rollins

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