Dillon Rule

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Virginia is a Dillon Rule state - as opposed to a Home Rule state - which means that its localities and governing bodies can only take action where they have been delegated authority to do so by the Virginia Assembly.

Adopted in 1896 by the Virginia Supreme Court, the Virginia General Assembly has delegated broad authority to local governments to establish comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances in order to guide the use and development of their land. A locality creates a Comprehensive Plan to provide a general "blueprint" for future community growth and development, which is implemented through zoning ordinances. Through these ordinances, local governments divide the community into districts (or zones) and then specify the particular uses and development patterns that are permitted in each district.

Local examples

The principle, known as the Dillon Rule (also referred to as “Dillon’s Rule”), is a rule of strict construction – if there is a reasonable doubt whether the legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body. [1] The General Assembly has defined in state law which authorities have been delegated from the state government to all jurisdictions of a particular category.

Zoning code

State-enabling authority is silent as to the method in which a locality can execute its granted power as found in a number of statutes, including Va. Code § 15.2-2280 concerning zoning ordinances. This statute broadly enables localities to "regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine" the use of land and structures, leaving the choice of implementation up to the locality, as long as the method chosen is reasonable.

Meal tax

Albemarle is among the majority of counties in Virginia authorized to levy a food and beverage tax at a rate of up to 4 percent with the approval of the voters by referendum. The referendum may be certified for the ballot by resolution of a county board of supervisors or by a petition signed by at least 10 percent of registered voters. Five counties in Virginia have been statutorily exempted from the referendum requirement and can adopt meals taxes by ordinance (Arlington, Frederick, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Rockbridge Counties). However, town and city councils are not subject to the 4 percent cap and have been granted the right to levy meals taxes through ordinance rather than referendum.

Who was Dillon and where did his rule come from?

The game later also became known as "blind man's bluff"

John Forrest Dillon was the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court in the mid-1800’s. The rule itself is the result of Dillon’s distrust of city government. By the 1860s, cities had become not only inefficient, but corrupt. Graft, in the form of kickbacks, was rampant for many public works and public utility projects, including the railroads. It was the era of “Boss Tweed” and the Tammany Hall gang who reportedly swindled between $75 and $200 million from New York City between 1861 and 1875.[2]

Understandably, Dillon did not trust local government and wrote in his book, "Commentaries on the Law of Municipal Corporations," (1911)[3], the usefulness of our municipal corporation has been impaired by evils that are either inherent in them or that have generally accompanied their workings. Some of these may be briefly indicated:

  1. Men the best fitted by their intelligence, business experience, capacity, and moral character, for local governors or counselors are not always, it is feared, - it might be added are not generally, - chosen. This is especially true of populous cities.
  2. Those chosen are too apt to merge their individual conscience in their corporate capacity. Under the shield of their corporate character, men but too often do acts which they would never do as individuals. The public, as if to retaliate, acts towards corporations in the same spirit. The notion, though not avowed, is quite too much acted upon, that all that can be obtained from a public, or, indeed, from any corporation, is legitimate spoil. Against these, men, usually honest and fair in their dealings, do not scruple to make demands which they would never make against an individual.”
  3. As a result, the administration of the affairs of our municipal corporations is too often unwise and extravagant.

The Application of Dillon Rule in Virginia

  • A court-­made rule of law in Virginia.
  • A non-­constitutional, non-­‐statutory rule for interpreting local government authority.
  • An attempt to reverse Dillon’s Rule for cities and certain counties by constitutional amendment failed in 1970. [4]
  • Judge Dillon’s 19th Century treatise lives today in contemporary Virginia jurisprudence.
  • First followed in City of Winchester v. Redmond (1896) holding that no city authority existed for a city council to give rewards leading to the conviction of arsonists.

Contemporary Application of Dillon Rule in Virginia

  • Strong affirmation of support for the doctrine in Virginia Supreme Court cases.
  • Commonwealth v. County of Arlington (1977) is key case setting forth strong adherence in Virginia law.
  • Many cases have since applied Dillon’s Rule in response to challenges to local government actions.

While Virginia is considered one of the stricter Dillon rule states, the Brookings Institution study[5] shows that 31 states operate under Dillon’s Rule while 10 states do not abide by it. In addition, 8 states practice Dillon’s Rule for certain types of municipalities and the one remaining state (Florida) has conflicting authority. Brookings also ranked the 50 states by the degree of local discretionary authority, and, surprisingly, Virginia ranked 8th in the composite (for all types of local units), 9th for cities only, and 13th for counties only.[6]

Recent Dillon’s Rule Jurisprudence & Local Government Authority

  • Dillon’s Rule challenges to Local Government action are common and seven cases have reached the Virginia Supreme Court in the last five years.
  • Approximately half of recent [2013] Dillon’s Rule challenges have been successful in rejecting local government assertions of authority.

Virginia is one of a limited number of states that follow the Dillon Rule and the rule continues to stir debate. Some complain that the rule continues to bind the ability of Virginia’s localities to respond to the priority needs of their localities and regions. The Dillon Rule limits a local governing body’s ability to address local issues using local strategies exercised under its police power. As a result, a locality’s ability to address local issues is at the mercy of the General Assembly unless a means to address the issue has already been enabled. A locality’s governing body does not have broad general authority to adopt whatever ordinance it deems appropriate or desirable. [7] On the other hand, the Dillon Rule has the effect of assuring, at least to some extent, a certain amount of consistency for those who deal with Virginia’s localities. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce has stated that the Dillon Rule “represents a positive tradition of legislative oversight” and encourages economic growth through a consistency in laws throughout the state.”

Albemarle County Land Use Law Handbook

The "Land Use Law Handbook" [8] was created to be used by Albemarle County officials as a resource for dealing with land use issues and is published online as a convenience to citizens. As noted on the Counties website, the Handbook is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The Handbook is maintained by the County Attorney's Office, and was originally issued in November 2001. The Handbook was last comprehensively revised in July 2015, and is periodically amended as referenced.

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