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County News

Posted on: January 16, 2020

The Unseen Role of the Dillon Rule

Virginia-capital

Unless you read your college political science textbooks in your spare time, you may not realize Virginia is a Dillon Rule state. What does that mean? It means that Virginia is one of 39 states where the local government derives its power from the state. Essentially it means the Commonwealth of Virginia provides the framework for how Stafford is governed and how it makes its decisions.

“Serving in the General Assembly opened my eyes to how interconnected the state is with the decisions we make every day,” said Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer, Garrisonville District, a former House of Delegates member. “We cannot simply change an ordinance. We have to make decisions within the context of the laws and rules dictated to us by the state.”

Surprisingly, the Dillon Rule, a concept that has had a far-reaching effect on governance in America, originated in an 1868 court case in the Iowa Supreme Court. In the decision, Justice John Dillon spelled out his interpretation of the powers of local government and from where they originate. He included powers granted expressly by the state, those implied by the powers from the state, those essential to the objectives and purposes of the locality and if there was a question, a court should decide. The United States Supreme Court later confirmed this decision by saying that municipalities owe their origin to and derive their powers entirely from the legislature, “without which it cannot exist.”

To understand this concept, you need to go further back to the United States Constitution. The Founding Fathers made no mention of local government in the United States. This decision was because their goal was to disperse power across the states and prevent the abuse of power by the federal government. All authority outside of the federal government belonged to the states and their citizens.

“A perfect example of the Dillon Rule is the mandate by Virginia that local governments prepare and adopt a Comprehensive Plan and the tools identified by state code for carrying out that plan,” said Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Meg Bohmke. “Our Comprehensive Plan is our long range guide and vision for the physical development of the County  and sets out how we prepare for future needs. State Code lays out the need for an official map, subdivision and zoning regulations and the need for a capital improvement program for constructing public infrastructure – all tools for carrying out county business. The Code tells us how those documents are to be prepared, what they must contain, and how they can be used.”

Stafford’s Board of Supervisors derives its powers from the state per the Dillon Rule. Because of this, the Board has to be mindful of the framework provided by the state when making any decision impacting those enumerated powers.

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