Dillon Rule in Virginia


Fairfax County operates under the urban county executive form of government, an optional form of Virginia county government, and like other Virginia local governments, Fairfax County has limited powers.

More specifically, Virginia courts have concluded that local governments in Virginia have only:

  1. Those powers that are specifically conferred on them by the Virginia General Assembly

  2. Those powers that are necessarily or fairly implied from a specific grant of authority

  3. Those powers that are essential to the purposes of government -- not simply convenient but indispensable

This doctrine of limited authority for local governments is commonly called the Dillon Rule, a name that is derived from the writings of John Forest Dillon, who served as a judge, a law professor and an author of legal textbooks in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Dillon Rule is used in interpreting law when there is a question of whether or not a local government has a certain power. The Dillon Rule narrowly defines the power of local governments. It also states that if there is any reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred on a local government, then the power has NOT been conferred.

The Dillon Rule as a concept is found in all states – meaning that apart from the power ceded to the federal government in the U.S Constitution, the state governments have all the remaining governmental authority. However, most states have adopted various types of “home rule” provisions that permit some or all of their local governments to undertake those governmental functions that are not specifically precluded by the laws of those home rule states. Virginia has not provided such home rule authority to its local governments.

The Virginia Supreme Court and other Virginia courts routinely apply the Dillon Rule to determine whether or not a local government has the legal authority to undertake a disputed action. For well-established county functions, like planning, zoning, and taxation, there are a number of statutes that give the county clear direction and authority to act, but in new areas of governmental concern, the Dillon Rule can serve as a constraint to innovative governmental responses.

This means that Fairfax County has limited powers in areas such as raising revenue, and it cannot take certain actions without appropriate action from the state, which limits revenue diversification options among other things.

 

 


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