Counties, Cities, Towns, Villages,
Hamlets, Special Districts,
& Postal Zones in New York State
A Confusing Picture but We Love It!
New York State is organized governmentally very much on the New England model in which the most important governing units are Towns (and Cities). Historically, counties have had the weaker governmental role.
A town is a municipal corporation. All territory within the state (and within a county), except that within cities or Indian reservations, is within a town. Towns can contain villages and hamlets. Towns can cover a large geographic area, sometimes as large as a typical county, or very small, such as tiny Shelter Island at the eastern end of Long Island. Towns are headed by a Town Supervisor, who is also the presiding officer of the Town’s legislative body, the Town Board (or Trustees). A Town Supervisor is not exactly the parallel of a mayor or a CEO, and often shares executive authority with the Town board or other elected officials, such as a Town Highway Commissioner.
Historically, Towns were the principal municipal governmental units within the State, as they were in New England. And even today, they perform most of the “municipal” functions of government. On Long Island, many of the towns original authority is pre-Revolution. For example, the authority of the Town of Brookhaven dates to 1686 when the New York provincial Governor Thomas Dongan issued a Patent which granted extensive powers to towns, and established a representative form of government. This Dongan patent is still looked to as the foundation for much of the Town’s present day authority.
It is not quite proper to refer to the Towns of New York State (and of New England) as townships — although even in town records of the colonial period “township” was sometimes used to refer to the the entire governmental unit, as opposed to communities (hamlets) within the Town, which sometimes were referenced as a town (or a village). As the country expanded to the west, townships were at first principally surveying conveniences, and identified a 6 mile x 6 mile block between range lines and township lines. (A scheme devised by Thomas Jefferson called the “public land survey system,” PLSS. In New England and New York (and throughout most of the original thirteen colonies), a very different surveying system is in use, called “metes and bounds,” which can result in great fun and frustration as one attempts to decipher early property deeds.) The “PLSS townships” were sometimes named, but also may have just been assigned a number. In some states, the term townships did develop a different, parallel usage, in that counties were divided into districts called townships. As a rule, these are often just election districts. They most generally have no other governmental authority. Each “township” elected a “judge” who was usually just a county legislator who sat on a “county court” which was really the county legislature — talk about confusing use of terms for us Easterners. As a county may have increase in population, additional townships were often added to more or less maintain a one-person one-vote principal. Some of the new Midwest states appear to have adopted variations of the New England/New York models of Town and County governmental units, among them (I believe) is Michigan, where townships, originally developed using PLSS, seem to have many of the parallel functions as do New England and New York Towns.
A village is a general purpose municipal corporation formed voluntarily by the residents of an area in one or more towns to provide themselves with municipal services. Villages are organizationally similar to cities. However, a Village is still within a Town (a City is not), and some authority remains with the Town depending on the village charter — but not much if you believe most villagers. As I understand it, a village’s authority derives from a Town (or Towns), while a city’s derives from the State legislature. To add to the confusion, some villages use “city” in their name.
The Town of Brookhaven has eight villages: Belle Terre, Bellport, Lake Grove, Old Field, Patchogue, Poquott, Port Jefferson, and Shoreham.
A hamlet is an unincorporated area in one or more towns that is governed at-large by the town it is in. It has no official boundaries, and it’s name derives mostly from tradition and history. Most locality names in Suffolk County are actually hamlets. While hamlets are sometimes referred to as “villages,” this usage is improper. In Nassau County, there are many more incorporated villages than is Suffolk County.
The Town of Brookhaven includes all or part of fifty-two hamlets: Blue Point, Brookhaven, Calverton (in part with the Town of Riverhead), Canaan Lake, Center Moriches, Centereach, Cherry Grove, Coram, Crystal Brook, Cupsogue Beach, Davis Park, East Moriches, East Patchogue, East Setauket, East Shoreham, Eastport (in part with the Town of Southampton), Farmingville, Fire Island Pines, Gordon Heights, Hagerman, Holbrook (in part with the Town of Islip), Holtsville (in part with the Town of Islip), Lake Ronkonkoma (in part with the Towns of Islip and Smithtown), Manorville, Mastic, Mastic Beach, Medford, Middle Island, Miller Place, Port Jefferson Station, Ridge, Rocky Point, Ronkonkoma (in part with the Town of Islip), Selden, Setauket, Shirley, Sound Beach, South Haven, Stony Brook, Strongs Neck, Terryville, Upton (in fact, Brookhaven National Laboratory, a Federal government reservation), Wading River (in part with the Town of Riverhead), Water Island, West Manor, and Yaphank.
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