What is a County Island in Phoenix?

Dec 26, 2018

Phoenix may be in the middle of the desert, but you may be surprised to learn that we DO have islands here! Not the kind with sand and a palm tree - I'm talking about county islands. In this post I am going to talk about county islands for those who are not familiar with them.

What is a county island?
If you have recently moved to Arizona from the East Coast or the Mid-Western United States or are thinking about moving here, the concept of a county island may be completely foreign of to you. Let's start with a definition: A county island is an area of unincorporated land which is completely surrounded by an incorporated city or town. That's right, even if you buy a home within the City of Phoenix and have a Phoenix address, you may be on county land and not technically part of Phoenix!

How do you find county islands?
In the example below, all I did was perform a search for "Phoenix, Arizona" on Google Maps. Google outlines the city boundaries, but you can see that there are some irregular shapes which are not part of Phoenix, even though they may be surrounded on all sides by Phoenix - hence the name, islands.

Example of County Islands in North Phoenix
Many other Phoenix-area cities including Glendale, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek, and others have county islands as well. In the example below, you can see that the city of Chandler, AZ is full of them, particularly in the southern portion of the city. The actual boundaries of the city of Chandler are quite unusual!

 
Google Maps showing county islands within the city of Chandler, AZ


What are the pros and cons of living in a county island?
There are some pros and cons of living in a county island, which I will explore below.

I must preface this with the disclaimer that I am not a licensed realtor or a lawyer, and it is YOUR responsibility to look up local laws and ordinances in your area, as they will certainly vary from one jurisdiction to another.

Advantages of a living in a County Island
  • Residents of county islands generally do not have to pay residential property tax on their home, because property tax is levied by cities.
  • Federal, State and County laws still apply, but city laws may not apply. Therefore residents may be able to store and work on vehicles, own chickens, goats, horses, or other livestock not permitted by residential city codes or ordinances.
  • County Island residents are not governed by Home Owners Associations (HOAs). This is why you will often find horse properties, commercial vehicle storage, and other activities taking place within county islands which are typically not permitted within most cities and towns.
  • An example would be a person who stores a large motorhome, boat, or other recreational vehicle on their property. Within city limits, the homeowner is likely to get complaints from neighbors about the large vehicle parked on their property - which could result in a city code violation. A person living on county land will typically not have such restrictions, which are often part of a city's code or charter.
  • Another example would be the owner of a company. Perhaps it is a construction company, plumbing, electrical, roofing, HVAC, or other home services company - or perhaps a commercial towing operator, etc. Within many cities, homeowners cannot store a fleet of commercial vehicles at their house. Within a county island however, this is often permitted.

Disadvantages of living in a County Island
  • Homes are typically not connected to city services such as water and sewer services. Residents may rely on a shared well and or septic system for their home. In some cases they may be served by a private water company.
  • Homes in county islands also do not receive solid waste collection services from the surrounding city. Residents must contract with a private company for residential trash collection and do not receive bulk trash pickup without an additional charge.
  • County Islands may or may not have paved streets, sidewalks and streetlights. If they do, they are not maintained or serviced by the city.
  • Calls for police assistance will be responded to by the County Sheriff, which may result in a longer response time than the local municipal police force.
  • Fire and Emergency/Medical services are not usually provided to residents in a County Island. In some cases there may be a special Fire District to provide services, or residents may subscribe to services from the surrounding city for an annual fee.
  • Residents of a county island are not eligible to vote in city elections, such as for the mayor. (They can still vote in county, state, and Federal elections).
Will a county island always be a safe haven?
Living in a county island may be appealing to some people who favor reduced government involvement in their lives. However, the status of a county island is not guaranteed. In some jurisdictions, a county island may be annexed by the surrounding city if 51% of the residents vote in favor of the annexation. While it is unlikely to happen, it has happened before and could happen again. However, this is unlikely since many of the residents of a county island are likely to live there by choice and may share a similar mindset and reasons for living in such an area.

Are county islands a good place to live?
Well, that depends on your perspective. Living in a county island may align with your personal beliefs about reduced government intervention in the lives of private citizens, or if you are a business owner, there may be some real financial incentives to living in an unincorporated area.

However, many county islands are lacking in basic city amenities such as water and trash service, sidewalks, streetlights, or even paved roads. Residents may not like having to pay private companies for trash collection or paying an annual fee to be receive coverage by emergency fire/medical services.

Now that you know about some of the advantages and disadvantages of county islands, you can decide for yourself if living in one is right for you. It is something to be cautious of if you are moving or relocating to the Phoenix area and are not familiar with the concept of County Islands. 

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