California City Incorporation Laws

By Andrew Sylvia

The Declaration of Independence noted that sometimes in the course of human events it's necessary for one group of people to politically break away from another, and the Founding Fathers undertook revolution to achieve that goal. If residents of a municipality in the State of California wish to do the same thing, all they need to do is file some documents, and have some hearings and elections.


The incorporation of new municipalities under California law is governed by one of the 12 Local Agency Formation Commissions or "LAFCOS" in the state of California as cited Title 5, Division 3 of California Government Code.

Title 5, Division 3 is better known as the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act, and was originally known as the Cortese-Knox Act until it was amended in 2000.

The Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act applies to municipal annexation, or when one municipality requests to expand its borders, as well as in municipal incorporation, which is the creation of an entirely new municipality.

Starting The Process

When residents of a certain area within California containing 500 or more people wish to incorporate their own municipality, they can go through one of two steps. The first method is a resolution for city incorporation by a government body which currently oversees the area in some form or another, either a city, county or other district providing a certain service like schools or other infrastructure resources. The second method is a petition signed by 20 percent of the people within the area that wishes to be incorporated into a new municipality.

Additional First Steps

In addition to the resolution or petition, seven other things must be submitted before the LAFCO can begin the hearing process: a city incorporation application, a verbal description of the perimeter of the proposed municipality, a plat map that includes all the property lines within the proposed municipality, two topographical maps of the proposed municipality, a disclosure statement, a processing fee, and 25 copies of an incorporation feasibility study.

The incorporation feasibility study is basically a detailed report explaining how the new municipality will function and how it will plan for its future.

Secondary Hearings and Elections

If the LAFCO denies the application, the applicants must wait one year if they wish to apply again. However, if the LAFCO approves the application, hearings to prepare for a public referendum begin as described by California Government Code 57000, 57077 and 57116. However, the referendum can be stopped through a protest petition signed by 50 percent of the landowners in the proposed municipality if it is located entirely in unincorporated territory, or by 50 percent of the voters of the government body that holds proposed municipality, if the proposed municipality is located in an incorporated territory or a mixture of incorporated and unincorporated territory.

The referendum to approve or deny the new municipality requires a simple majority vote of those currently within the area within the proposed municipality.


480 municipalities have been incorporated since the first, the city of Sacramento, was incorporated in 1850 slightly prior to California becoming a state. The only municipality to unincorporated was Cabazon, a small city just west of Palm Springs, which unincorporated in 1972.

About the Author

Since 2000, Andrew Sylvia has written for more than a dozen newspapers throughout New Hampshire. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism in 2004.