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Because of Dillon, State Rules over Localities

April 22, 2012

By Chaneé Patterson
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During a session marked by debates over big issues like the state budget and abortion rights, Virginia legislators spent a surprising amount of time dealing with mundane matters – like telling slackers in Prince George County, the city of Hopewell and the towns of Ashland and Chincoteague to mow their lawns.

In Virginia, it takes a state law for local governments to order residents to cut their grass or remove trash from their property. That’s because Virginia follows a legal doctrine called the Dillon Rule.

Under that principle, localities have only the powers granted by the state. As a result, every year local officials must go hat in hand to the Capitol and ask the General Assembly for permission to do rather routine things.

This year, for example, the towns of Onancock and Urbanna got the assembly’s approval to put a lien on property if the owner refuses to pay the water or sewer bill.

Legislators passed bills letting the city of Newport News sell a parcel of undevelopable land for $1 and the city of Richmond to expand its amnesty program for delinquent taxpayers.

Even name changes – like removing Tappahannock from the Tappahannock-Essex County Airport Authority – required the assembly’s approval.

And then there were the bills expanding “the list of localities permitted to provide by ordinance for the cutting of grass and weeds on occupied property.” The General Assembly passed, and Gov. Bob McDonnell signed, four such measures:

¶ House Bill 197 (for the Eastern Shore town of Chincoteague), sponsored by Delegate Lynwood Lewis Jr., D-Accomac

¶ HB 492 (for the city of Hopewell), by Delegate Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg

¶ HB 493 (for Prince George County), also by Dance

¶ Senate Bill 15 (for the Hanover County town of Ashland), by Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico

All this came at a time when legislators were wrestling with dozens of high-priority issues, including abortion regulations, gun purchase limitations and the state budget.

Regulating the height of grass and weeds may not measure up to the state budget, but it did stir up some controversy in the General Assembly.

Delegate Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, introduced a bill to save the assembly the time and energy spent on adding localities to the weed-whacking list every year. HB 617 would have allowed any county to regulate grass height. The bill died in committee.

John Forrest Dillon, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, promulgated the rule that bears his name in an 1868 decision: “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist.”

After that decision, many states started following the doctrine that local governments have only those powers expressly granted to them by the state.

The opposite of the Dillon Rule is called “Home Rule.” Under this principle, a local government can do anything unless it has been denied by the state or it violates the state constitution or U.S. law.

Because Virginia follows the Dillon Rule, cities and towns must seek legislative approval to amend their charters – to move the date of local elections, for example, or to change the number of seats on the city council.

It’s hard to say how many bills come before the General Assembly each year because of the Dillon Rule.

According to the Legislative Information Service, the assembly’s database of bills, about 300 measures fell under the category of “Counties, Cities and Towns” during the 2012 legislative session.

They included proposals such as SB 141, authorizing the town of St. Paul “to prohibit the use of compression release engine brakes”; and SB 683, allowing Loudoun County to spray deer with pesticides to check the spread of tick-borne Lyme disease. Both failed.

Midway through the session, Republican lawmakers held a press conference and said local-interest bills made up about 11 percent of all legislation in the House. (The GOP’s point was that only a fraction of bills concerned social issues, such as abortion or guns.)

Some legislators are beginning to question the Dillon Rule. For example, Delegate Kenneth Plum, D-Reston, wonders whether it’s necessary for every local charter amendment to come before the General Assembly.

“I hope that we will be more open-minded and generous in granting more authority to local governments,” Plum said.

Delegate Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, noted that because of the Dillon Rule, “Each year, we get a ton of bills that come through from localities asking the state for authority to do different things.”

Surovell himself has introduced such measures. In past sessions, he proposed bills to let Fairfax County decide whether to adopt a meals tax and to let the county increase its traffic fines to pay for an electronic ticket processing system. One delegate had to introduce legislation to let a local government issue paychecks twice a month instead of every two weeks, Surovell said.

Surovell serves on the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee, so he must hear Dillon Rule bills – such as the measures permitting localities to require residents to cut their grass.

“Every one of these grass bills requires thousands of hours of government time to push through,” Surovell said. On his blog, he detailed more than a dozen steps each bill must clear: “All that so each locality can regulate grass height and weeds.”

Surovell co-sponsored LeMunyon’s bill to let any locality regulate grass height. After the Counties, Cities and Towns Committee voted 11-10 to table the bill, Surovell wrote: “Sometimes the legislature gives you a headache.”

On the Web

Delegate Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon discusses the Dillon Rule on his blog at:

The Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia has several articles about the Dillon Rule, including:

To look up bills, visit the Legislative Information Service’s website,

This article was published by The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Press of Newport News, the Hampton Roads AltDaily, Fairfax Patch and other CNS subscribers.