The differences between cities, counties, towns and unincorporated settlements in Virginia

For many, especially those who are new to the area, the system of jurisdictions that we have in the Commonwealth of Virginia can be confusing. This is especially confusing in Northern Virginia, where
Virginia intersects with Washington DC and the State of Maryland.

Fortunately I have a fresh bottle of CONFUSION-B-GON to spray liberally as needed.

Around our nation’s capital

Let me start with my single-biggest pet peeve among newcomers: the term “DC proper”.

I have seen this term used regularly on a site that claims to provide local information. That information is provided by people using anonymous handles. Anonymous handles should be your first clue not to completely trust the information you find.

At any rate: there is no such thing as “DC proper”. There are three main jurisdictions here: Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC.

It is very common to live in Northern Virginia or Suburban Maryland and work in DC. Virginia is as different from DC as New Jersey is from New York. With a wink and a smile I have to inform you that just because you thought your job was transferring to Washington doesn’t mean that you’re moving to DC proper or improper.

Virginia jurisdictions

One of the keys to understanding Virginia real estate for a property search is to understand the differences between towns, counties and cities. In Virginia, as in most other states in the US, a county and an area administer below the state-level by local / county government.
Counties are often rural areas, but Fairfax County has over a million
residents and has very little rural land left.

Fairfax County aside, a county may have one or more towns within it’s borders. In Virginia a town, no matter how many people live in that town, is part of a county and is managed by the county. In Virginia, towns often have governments but these governments are subordinate to and part of the
county where the town is found.

In addition to counties, Virginia has a fairly unique concept called a city. A city is like a county, except it is more urban than rural.

For example Falls Church and Alexandria are both cities. Cities, unlike towns, are not subordinate to counties. Cities are independent and operate on a level similar to counties.

This can be particularly confusing in Fairfax County. Fairfax County is a large mostly urban county and it surrounds Fairfax, an independent city. So the City of Fairfax is surrounded by Fairfax County, but it’s not a part of Fairfax County. Falls Church, Alexandria and Fairfax are
all cities. Manassas and Manassas Park are both cities, and both are surrounded by Prince William County.

Real estate is sorted by county

It’s important to understand this system of administrative organization because land tax records are stored by the county or city. Because tax records are organized by the county or city, real estate property searches are often sorted by the administrative jurisdiction.

For a newcomer it can be a little difficult to tell the difference between Fairfax and Fairfax County, between Manassas and Manassas Park and Prince William County. Another point of confusion is Arlington. Arlington is a city in a practical sense, but Arlington is a county.

Herndon, Vienna and Clifton are all towns located in Fairfax County, which mean that these towns have local governments subordinate to the county. Springfield is much bigger than Clifton, but Springfield is not a town.

Another curious case is Crystal City. Crystal City is located in Arlington County. Interestingly, Crystal City is not a city nor is it a town!

Unincorporated settlements

Which brings us to the next point of confusion in the area. There are many unincorporated neighborhoods, villages, towns and settlements in Northern Virginia. Unincorporated just means there is no local (i.e. town) government. Rather than having a town government, an unincorporated town is managed by the county. Springfield, Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, Mclean Tysons Corner and Reston are just a few of the many unincorporated towns in Fairfax County. In places like Springfield this can be a little confusing because without a town there is no formal border between Franconia and Springfield and thus no hard and fast distinction between the two. In addition, with the near completion of Kingstowne, Franconia-Springfield is now home to one of the largest planned
communities/subdivisions in the area. Kingstowne is considered a town in and of itself by many.

Post office address

To make matters even more confusing for newcomers, there is the matter of the post office. The postal address of a property is not always an indicator of the jurisdiction of a property. For example,
many addresses in Fairfax County have an Alexandria address. Service from the Alexandria post office has no bearing on the county or city of the address in question.

Confusion-B-Gon guarantee!

Well, that’s the last of this bottle of CONFUSION-B-GON. If you’re still confused, no worries. Contact Nesbitt Realty. Tell us what you seek and we’ll find the property for you!
For more information or to set up an appointment call Stuart at (703)765-0300.