RICHMOND (Capital News Service) — 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 powers granted to them 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.
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.
The Dillon Rule's opposite is the "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.
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.
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.”
Del. 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.
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.
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 point of the GOP press conference was to prove social issues, such as abortion or guns, made up only a fraction of bills before lawmakers.
Del. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, who serves on the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee and co-sponsored LeMunyon's bill, said the grass bills require thousands of hours of government time.
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."
Tell us: Should Virginia continue to operate under the Dillon Rule? Or should lawmakers consider giving localities more independence?