Case Studies

Dillon’s Rule


Understanding state control on local governments in Virginia as a result of Dillon’s Rule is fundamental to understanding the government that affects people the most. The vast majority of citizens are affected most directly by their local government. State and federal laws have broad impacts on the day to day lives of citizens, but it is local government that decides whether a new subdivision will be built, the local school zones, how much citizens will pay for trash collection, and whether a road should be widened from two lanes to four lanes this year or next year.

Why I Taught These Sources

Any student who pays any attention to state or local political issues in Virginia will eventually hear someone complain about Dillon’s Rule because complaining about Dillon’s Rule is ubiquitous in local government circles in Virginia. I once spoke to a high school government class about Dillon’s Rule and before I got a few sentences into my talk a student raised her hand and said “My Dad says Dillon’s Rule is the biggest obstacle to progress we have ever faced.” I seldom hear a positive word spoken about Dillon’s Rule. It conjures up bad images in the mind’s eye: bad constitutional law and unwarranted limits on local government’s ability to make public policy. However, I think while Dillon’s Rule certainly does restrain local government in some significant ways, it is often unfairly blamed as the cause of many problems for which is has played no role at all. I use these sources to make this point and my hope is that students come away with a better understanding of just what role Dillon’s Rule plays in local governance in Virginia.

How I Introduce These Sources

I introduce these three sources to the students by first talking about the concept of home rule. I think the most important thing for students to understand when trying to get their heads around Dillon’s Rule is to think about power on a continuum from absolute power to make decisions on one end to absolutely no power to make decisions on the other end. I use my students as an example, asking them to think back to their time in high school. I draw a line across the board and on the left I write “Absolute Power” and on the right I write “Absolutely No Power.”  I ask the students to tell me where they think they would have placed their own decision making authority viz-a-viz their parents when they were in high school. There are always a few outliers, but most students place themselves near the middle right, meaning their power was restricted but they felt like they did have power and authority to make some decisions. We have a brief class discussion about this, and I try to focus the discussion on what kind of decisions they had the authority to make for themselves. They probably couldn’t decide to stay out all Friday night without talking to their parents about it, but they probably could decide which movie they were going to see without talking to their parents about it.

I use this analogy and apply it to local government in Virginia, noting that like their position in high school, local governments also have limitations on their power and authority. With this idea of power on a continuum in mind, I then shift the discussion to the three sources: an overview of Dillon’s Rule from the League of Women Voters of Fairfax County, a chapter on the Dillon Rule from The Albemarle County Land Use Handbook, and a Virginia Supreme Court Ruling.

Reading the Sources

It is very easy to get mired in the minutia of local ordinances, court cases, and laws, so reading the sources takes some care. I have found the best way to read the sources is to give students a list of questions first, and then ask them to read the first source Handout #1: Dillon’s Rule: Good or Bad for Local Governments? with those questions in mind. The list I usually give includes: 1.) In what way does Dillon’s Rule limit local governmental power and authority? 2.) In what way does Dillon’s Rule empower local governmental power and authority? 3.) What is the default position when there is disagreement or uncertainty, and why does this default position frustrate people? In a class discussion I cover the concepts of “expressed power,” “implied power” and “inherent power.” I then go back to the concept of power on a continuum and ask students to generically place local governments somewhere on the continuum between “Absolute Power” and “Absolutely No Power.” The goal of this discussion is to come out the other end with the students understanding that local government power in Virginia exists on the continuum at about the same place on that continuum that many students are in terms of their own power and authority in high school…slightly to the right of center.

I next turn to a case study…since many conflicts involving Dillon’s Rule in recent years have been around land use and planning, I ask students to read Handout #2: Albemarle County Land Use Law Handbook, Chapter 5 and Handout #3: Jacqulyn C. Logan v. City Council of the City of Roanoke. We have a class discussion about the advice provided in the handbook and the decision made by the Virginia Supreme Court. These two readings serve as a case study of Dillon’s Rule in action and how local governments make policy in the context of their very real limitations and their very real powers.


Studying Dillon’s Rule is very valuable for several reasons. Virginia is a Dillon’s Rule state and as such there are very real limitations placed upon local government’s power and authority. Students should understand what this means and by understanding this they will have gained a much better idea of the potential difficulties local officials might have in solving problems. However, it is equally important that students understand that Dillon’s Rule does not mean that local governments have no powers. There are powers expressly granted and powers necessarily implied, and it is through these power that local governments are able to solve many (if not most) of the problems that arise. Finally, understanding Dillon’s Rule and the grants and limitations of power it provides to local governments gives students an avenue to understanding how to become engaged in their communities.