Township (Pennsylvania)

A Pennsylvania township or township under Pennsylvania laws is one class (with two forms) of the three types of municipalities codified (and commonly found as towns, villages, or hamlets), in Pennsylvaniasmaller municipal class legal entities providing local self-government functions in the majority of land areas in the more rural regions. Townships act as the lowest level municipal corporations of governance of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a U.S. state of the United States of America.

Pennsylvania township
CategorySecond-level administrative division
LocationCommonwealth of Pennsylvania

However, Pennsylvania townships, in seeming contradiction, often have far larger territorial area than its large cities, boroughs, and townsbecause only a relatively few occupants are required to establish the mechanisms of self-government under its constitution. Larger populations are required to progress to first-class townships, boroughs (towns) and cities. Further, that constitution dates to colonial times when most of the province of Pennsylvania was owned by Indians and new counties and new settlements were brought into being with steady regularity, and the first governments defined were very large, nearly county-sized sparsely populated townships.[lower-alpha 1]

Along with more densely populated boroughs and cities in the state, Pennsylvania townships are generally subordinate to or dependent upon the county level of government to one degree or another.[1][lower-alpha 2] Because of the way the political system progresses community growth and home rule politics under the commonwealth's constitution, it is common to have a township and borough of the same or similar name, generally abutting, and often with the 'town-like' borough partially or wholly surrounded by the remaining (and more rural original) township it has split off from. For a general in depth overview of townships, see civil townships.


Townships were established based on convenient local geographical boundaries within the borders of the 67 encompassing Pennsylvania counties,[2] and typically vary in size from 6 to 40 square miles (16–104 km2). There are two classifications of townships, first class and second class.[3] To become a first class township and operate under the powers of the "First Class Township Code" in Pennsylvania statute law, townships of the second class must have a population density of 300 inhabitants per square mile (120/km2) and voters must approve the change of classification in a referendum.

The principal difference between the two types is the form and the title, and period of office for the township administrators.[3] In the majority and second-class case, townships have three supervisors (can be increased to five by referendum) elected at large (by all voters) for overlapping six-year terms. In first-class townships, the governing body is 5–15 township commissionerswith two variations: either five commissioners are elected at large, or where population densities permit geopolitical wards be set up, an odd number of commissioners (up to 15) may be periodically elected for four year overlapping terms.[3] However, many townships have chosen to remain second-class townships even though they meet the population density requirements to become first-class townships.[3]

Municipal offices

Townships of the second class have 3–5 township supervisors elected at-large for six-year terms. First class townships' management are termed commissioners and have four-year elections, but are often more frequently running for office in a geographically defined ward.

Home rule hierarchy

Any township, regardless of its class, may adopt a home rule charter, at which point it is no longer governed by the Pennsylvania Township Codes. While a home rule charter can incorporate unusual features, the standard municipal functions are generally part of the mix, however the offices and powers are allocated.

The main areas of local services include police and fire protection, maintenance of local roads and streets, water supply, sewage collection and treatment, parking and traffic control, local planning and zoning, parks and recreation, garbage collection, health services, libraries, licensing of businesses and code enforcement.

Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government, 2010 (pdf)[4]

Generally, townships become boroughs after population growth, should they desire, then might eventually grow to city organized municipalities. Initially, each municipal organization begins as a second class township,[3] then, sufficient population requirements and referendum permitting, may become first-class townships, then Boroughs, and perhaps eventually, incorporate as cities, at each stage by the will of the people in a vote. In this progression, there may be several border adjustments, mergers with other municipalities and decades which pass. The system is flexible. Many choose to remain townships, despite growing to support the characteristically more-urbanized developments[lower-alpha 3] and other trappings of towns in other states.

Under the Pennsylvania constitution, each polity, each governmental entity, has the right to choose its own form of self-government, and a limited ability to delegate powers and oversight to such entities as authorities, commissions and school boards.[5] There are two types of townships: first class and second class, each operating under its own code of laws.[3][6]

Towns in Pennsylvania, meaning municipal corporate entities with clearly delineated zoning, business districts, main streets and the ambiance a stranger passing through might describe as a town, do not have a legal foundation, but are colloquial word choices for municipalities from small cities down to older townships with well-defined centers.

See also


  1. The township of Lausanne, PA in Carbon County is illustrative. When defined in 1808, it encompassed virtually all the homesteader settlements in Carbon County north of the Lehigh Gap (i.e. lands north of Lehighton and Weiss Landingon opposite banks of the River below the barrier ridge. The hamlet of Lausanne Landing anchored one end of the Lausanne-Nescopeck Turnpike, an important early road connecting Philadelphia to Wilkes-Barre and cutting off over 100 miles over the trip west to Harrisburg then north up the SusquehannaAs the 19th-century progressed, one township after another split off as local industry and real estate allowed populations to coalesce into local towns. As the process progressed, Lausanne grew smaller and smaller in each case being dislocated again into a more rural center until the remnant which had once been nearly the whole county, was a small rectangular strip between two ridge lines.
  2. For example, one county may provide trash collection or sewage processing services to towns regardless of class and size, while others leave local entities manage on their own wastes, and those may pool their resources and join a regional collective for dealing with such wastes, or with water provider. All municipalities, however rely on county and state organized courts for probate, criminal, and civil court services; but in larger cities, the city may have absorbed or share some of those court functions.
  3. more-urbanized developments e.g. apartment houses, large shopping centers, dense and busy down town streets with a lot of traffic signals. Taller office buildings


  1. "County Government". Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government (pdf): 8. 2010. Retrieved 2016-08-09. The eleven elected county officers are enumerated in the Pennsylvania Constitution, but their powers and duties are prescribed by statutes located through out the county codes and general state laws. Consolidation of certain offices in smaller counties involves the offices of prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills and recorder of deeds.
  2. "County Government". Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government (pdf): pdf p. 8. 2010. Retrieved 2016-08-09.
  3. "Townships". Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government (pdf): 5. 2010. Retrieved 2016-08-09. Pennsylvania has two classes of townships. All townships are second class except where first class status has been approved by the voters.
  4. "Townships". Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government (pdf): 5. 2010.
  5. "Authorities". Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government (pdf): 10. 2010. Retrieved 2016-08-09. The original reason for establishing authorities was the restriction on incurring municipal debt imposed by the Commonwealth prior to the 1968 constitutional amendments, but they have proven useful mechanisms, particularly for joint municipal projects. As of January 2010, there were 1,539 active authorities in Pennsylvania.
  6. "Second Class Township Code". Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. Retrieved 2015-04-05.

For a survey article on the powers and organization of Pennsylvania government, see Citizen's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government, 2010.

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