Is Home Rule The Answer? Clarifying The Influence Of Dillon’s Rule On Growth Management

Jesse J. Richardson, Jr., Meghan Zimmerman Gough, and Robert Puentes

Executive Summary

Does “Dillon’s Rule,” a little-known judicial doctrine named for a 19th-century Iowa Supreme Court justice, preclude robust local action to curb sprawl?

Local leaders in numerous states say it does, and often they look to their state governments for relief. These leaders contend they are handcuffed by Dillon’s Rule, a strict interpretation of state laws that allows localities to possess only such powers as are specifically delegated to them by state law. They often yearn for greater “home rule” authority, which they feel would expand their authority to respond to the myriad challenges posed by suburban growth.

Are they right? This discussion paper takes a close look at the important debate surrounding Dillon’s Rule and home rule, particularly as it pertains to ongoing debates about growth management. In doing so, the paper observes that rampant confusion persists among many local and state government officials, constituency groups, and interested voters about the true nature of Dillon’s Rule, which states are actually governed by it, and what it means. At the same time, the paper notes that this confusion has led to exaggerated depictions of home rule as the antidote to Dillon’s Rule, and the key to better growth management.

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Drawing from the best available legal literature and case law, the study examines the definition and use of both Dillon’s Rule and home rule and, for the first time, categorizes all 50 states by their overall interpretation of the state and local relationship. After that, the discussion probes common misperceptions about the two rules, and seeks to dispel them. To that end, the paper finds that:

  1. Thirty-nine states employ Dillon’s Rule to define the power of local governments. Of those 39 states, 31 apply the rule to all municipalities and eight (such as California, Illinois, and Tennessee) appear to use the rule for only certain municipalities. Ten states do not adhere to the Dillon Rule at all. And yet, Dillon’s Rule and home rule states are not polar opposites. No state reserves all power to itself, and none devolves all of its authority to localities. Virtually every local government possesses some degree of local autonomy and every state legislature retains some degree of control over local governments.
  2. Dillon’s Rule neither prohibits nor hinders growth management. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, many Dillon Rule states maintain model growth management systems. Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin, for example, have all implemented strong programs that give local and county governments the tools and incentives to manage or channel growth-even though Dillon’s Rule prevails in each state. At the same time, Oregon-a non-Dillon state with one of the nation’s strongest home rule traditions-sustains the nation’s strongest state-mandated growth management regime. In short, a state’s adherence to Dillon’s Rule in no way precludes strong action to deal with growth-related challenges. In such states, legislatures retain the power to grant localities broad freedom to engage in growth management. Conversely, legislatures in home rule states can pass laws that restrict municipalities from engaging in exclusionary practices or other activities that appear to undermine important state objectives.
  3. However, strong local autonomy can complicate regional collaboration. In practice, the contention that states should afford local governments more autonomy in order to enable them to manage growth conflicts with the notion that local governments acting independently may actually hinder, rather than further, effective growth management. Regional approaches lie at the heart of successful growth management. Effective growth management almost always requires adherence to a set of broad principles designed to accommodate growth and fundamentally affect region-scale metropolitan growth dynamics. By contrast, local governments generally act in a parochial manner, or lack the geographic breadth or ability to manage growth on a meaningful scale. To that extent, additional home rule probably offers no panacea for growth management challenges. And to the extent it contributes to greater fragmentation and localism it probably hinders problem solving.
  4. In sum, localities-rather than blaming Dillon’s Rule for the shortcomings of growth management-need to reexamine their own regulations (which set the rules of the development game) and urge states to take a leadership role. Local rules-such as zoning, comprehensive plans, subdivision regulations, and infrastructure investments-play a powerful role in addressing metropolitan growth challenges. For their part, states should take the lead in promoting and implementing progressive growth management efforts-through infrastructure, land use, tax, and other investment policies-that give localities the tools and incentives they need to grow in ways that are healthy at both the regional and statewide levels.