The Battle for Avon Township, Rochester and Rochester Hills, A Tale of Two Cities

As we celebrate the founding of Rochester during 2017, we must also note that Rochester Hills shares the same anniversary. Both Rochester and Avon Township – today’s Rochester Hills – received their first non-native settlers in 1817. Some of the founding Graham family members built their home in what is now the City of Rochester. The rest of them moved out to the area that is now the intersection of Avon & Livernois Roads, becoming the first white settlers of what would become Avon Township.

In the beginning, there was no local government in the area. As the small band of settlers welcomed more pioneers to their number, the territorial legislature of Michigan imposed some political organization. In 1819, the legislature created Oakland County with two general townships. By 1835, population growth required further division of the general townships, and Avon Township was officially created.

Avon Township 1896

Avon Township 1896

The town of Rochester and the township of Avon were not separate entities in those days. The elected supervisor and trustees of Avon Township also governed Rochester, which was part of the township’s territory. Change came in 1869, when some Rochester leaders petitioned the state legislature to incorporate Rochester as a village under Michigan law and allow it to govern its affairs separately from those of Avon Township. This was the first time that the governmental interests of Rochester and Avon Township took divergent paths. The legislature moved to incorporate the village, and in April 1869, the electors of the new Village of Rochester met in the parlor of the Lambertson House hotel at the corner of Fifth (now University) and Main streets to select their first village president and board of trustees.

From here, the story jumps forward almost a century to 1967. After 98 years of village government, Rochester successfully voted to become a city, overcoming a couple of earlier charter failures. For this reason, the City of Rochester has a dual anniversary to celebrate in 2017: the 200th anniversary of founding, and the 50th anniversary of cityhood.

Rochester’s earlier attempts at cityhood in 1958 and 1963 had caused friction and distrust to grow between the village and the township. Both of those proposals had sought to incorporate part of the territory of Avon Township into a new City of Rochester. In the process, the plans would have picked off the township’s two biggest taxpayers, National Twist Drill and Parke-Davis. The two companies stridently opposed the cityhood measures, which failed miserably in each case.

The cityhood campaign of 1966-67 (which ultimately carried the day) did not seek to expand Rochester’s boundaries as its predecessors had. However, the new City of Rochester later added territory from Avon Township through the process of annexation. The specter of annexation alarmed Avon Township officials, who feared that Rochester would continue to nibble at Avon’s land.

Because state law allowed cities to annex land from neighboring townships, but not from other neighboring cities, Avon Township leaders felt that cityhood for Avon was the only viable way to protect the township’s borders.

Rochester Bicentennial 2017

In 1967, the township formed a charter commission for a new city to be named Rochester Hills. Between 1969 and 1971, they failed three times to have cityhood approved by the township voters. Voters did not see the same urgency in the matter that their leaders did, and turnout was light. Further, some residents of the township viewed cityhood as a potential erosion of the township’s rural character.

For its part, the City of Rochester sought to combine the two municipalities again, finally. Rochester sued to have Avon Township’s cityhood bid ended and petitioned the State Boundary Commission to allow it to annex the entire territory of Avon Township. On a parallel track, a community group called Avon-Rochester Citizens for Consolidation had asked for a vote to create a charter commission to develop a plan to unify the city and township. The State Boundary Commission denied Rochester’s request to annex the entire township, and ruled that the voter-driven unification process was the only viable way to combine the two municipalities.

Unfortunately, the voters didn’t see it that way. Supporters of consolidation argued that economies of scale and elimination of duplicate services would save taxpayers money. Opponents noted that municipal water and sewer served only one third of the township and that many of its streets were unpaved. They feared that Rochester taxpayers would be forced to share the hefty cost of bringing the township infrastructure up to city levels. Rochester residents managed to approve consolidation by a slim four-vote margin, but the question failed in the township by 349 votes. Lacking a majority in both municipalities, the effort to combine Avon Township and Rochester was defeated.

As soon as the vote failed, Rochester passed a resolution to annex 1,320 acres of the township – or 2.2 square miles – along its eastern boundary. The proposed annexation would double the area of the city and extend its border all the way to Dequindre Road. In the process, it would remove Parke-Davis, Avon Township’s largest taxpayer, from the township’s tax rolls. The Avon Township Board strenuously objected by all legal means available to it, and the battle raged on in the courts until 1981, when the final ruling favored the City of Rochester.

City of Rochester and the City of Rochester Hills Today

City of Rochester and the City of Rochester Hills Today

This loss, and an impending annexation request from the City of Troy for 300 acres in the southeast corner of the township, brought the cityhood question in Avon to a crisis point. On May 22, 1984, the voters of Avon Township approved cityhood by a three-to-one margin, and chose the name of Rochester Hills over Avon Hills. Township supervisor Earl Borden, who had led the fight against annexation for the preceding decade, was selected as the new city’s first mayor. On November 20, 1984, the Township of Avon passed into the history books and the City of Rochester Hills was officially born.

Although the 1984 election settled the cityhood issue for Avon, some local leaders still longed for a single community and once again proposed unification. Citizens for Consolidated Government brought the unification issue before the voters one last time in May 1987, but the measure failed by a landslide in both communities. Fear of higher taxes and loss of identity were the reasons most often cited for the resounding “no” vote.

With that 1987 election, the voters circled back to affirm a decision that had been made 118 years earlier, in 1869 – that Rochester and the surrounding Township of Avon had sufficient different interests to warrant separate governance. And, out of that long-ago decision, two cities were ultimately born.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Stewart Harris says:

    Thank you, Deborah, for a very interesting piece.

  2. What you did not say is that the residents of Avon Township did not want city status because they did not want to be taxed at the same high rate as Rochester. At the time of the annexation by Rochester from Avon Township the boundary commission had decided that in the event there were less than 99 residents in the proposed annexed area there didn’t have to be a vote. Rochester gerrymandered the proposed annexation so there would be less than 99 so that the residents in the area would not have a vote.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      Quite true on both counts, Jim. There’s so much more to this complex story (which carried on for the better part of three decades) than can be fully told in a few hundred words. Thanks for adding some additional perspective.

  3. Sue Ann Douglas says:

    Another interesting point is that for the last attempt at consolidation, our State Senator had amended the State law governing the process so that consolidation would not be voted on. The petitions were sold as a request to place the question of consolidation on the ballot when they knew darn well that would probably never happen. The change in the law would have voters immediately elect a Charter Commission who would at both communities expense fund that commission and its lawyers. This kind of process does not allow any elected officials or employees to be involved in the writing of the charter so there are expenses that come with the process since outside assistance has to be employed.
    Fortunately, the State had left a referendum opportunity in the Statute and I, along with other residents and officials from both cities, collected the signatures and submitted them to the boundary commission to place the direct question of consolidation on the ballot.. It failed in Rochester 7-1 and failed in Rochester Hills 2-1. It was a good thing that we didn’t pay to have a charter written; it would likely have been a waste of money for both communities.
    I wasn’t involved in the annexation decision but was on the Rochester City Council years later when the courts ruled in Rochester’s favor. One thing that is seldom mentioned about Parke David is that the City of Rochester provided both water and sewer services to the facility yet, Avon Township received all of the tax dollars from the facility. The State Boundary Commission does look at who provides the city services in a positive way and I would guess that is one of the key things that the courts looked at, too.
    It is also interesting to note that townships do not exist in all states. In states like Indiana, you either live in a city or an unincorporated area which is governed by the county. Some states also have the schools under county government.. There is a lot to this story and I thank Deborah J. Larsen for her story and acknowledgement that there is a lot more than can not be told it a few hundred words.

  4. Scott Struzik says:

    Ms. Larsen, just like your books, this was a fantastic read. Thanks so much for putting this information together!

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