Controversial “Home Rule” Likely Leading to Further Expansion of Local Government Power in West Virginia

scales.jpgThe “Home Rule,” or “municipal home rule,” is a legal term referring to the power of local governments to act independently to regulate public health and welfare of their communities without approval or oversight by the state government. Some states have self-executing home rule provisions in their constitutions, some require legislation to enact the rule and other states allow the home rule in cities and towns with a certain minimum population. Several states have no provision for the home rule at all.

The West Virginia constitution provides for the home rule through enabling legislation. This means that a law must be passed by the state for the home rule to be functional. In 2007, Governor Joe Manchin signed the home bill into effect in West Virginia. In 2008, a state panel implemented the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program, through which it chose several cities throughout the state, including Charleston and Wheeling, to participate in a five-year test run of the program.

During the test run, the participating cities would have more power to conduct local business. Since the pilot program was started, Charleston has passed several new city ordinances that have greatly improved the speed and efficiency of dealing with building code and zoning violations. The Charleston Planning Department says the home rule is working exactly the way they hoped it would and that the statistics generated in the department’s annual report show that the use of the rule is working in Charleston.

Wheeling used the home rule pilot program to become the first West Virginia city with a vacant building registration plan. Wheeling’s mayor said that vacant and abandoned buildings were a major problem for inner-city redevelopment and that any new ordinance that gives the city more power to deal with this problem is a good thing and necessary to help the city hold building owners accountable.

The response to the home rule pilot program in West Virginia has been lively. In March 2010, only two years into the five-year home rule pilot program, the West Virginia State Senate is expected to expand the power of local governments in the state even further with additional home rule legislation. An experienced attorney who works with area businesses can help you examine how the home rule may affect your business in West Virginia.