Local Acts and General Laws: Another Look

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Frayda Bluestein

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In an earlier blog post I wrote about the patchwork of local and general laws that collectively define local government authority. I noted that it can be difficult to determine when a general law does or does not override an earlier-adopted local act. Taking another look at this question, it appears that North Carolina case law recognizes a presumption in favor of the continuing validity of a local act, unless it is explicitly overridden by a subsequent local or general law. This blog post discusses the presumption and how it might affect the analysis of the state laws that define local government authority.

In Felmet v. Commissioners of Buncombe County, 186 N.C. 251 (1923), the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld a bond issuance authorized by a local act, even though it conflicted with a later-enacted general law. The court relied on a general rule that “the passage of a general law does not operate to modify or repeal the special law, either in whole or in part, unless such modification or repeal is provided for by express words, or arises by necessary implication.”  Citing national and North Carolina cases, the court went on to note:

“A local statute enacted for a particular municipality is intended to be exceptional, and for the benefit of such municipality, and is not repealed by the enactment of a subsequent general law.”

Courts have continued to apply this general rule, along with the rules of construction I discussed in my earlier blog post. See, City of Durham v. Manson, 21 N.C. App. 161 (1974) (upholding the use of eminent domain procedure allowed under local act but not general law).  Indeed, looking at the statutory rules in Chapter 160A and 153A, it’s clear that they reflect the assumption that the local acts continue in effect.

Let’s take another look at the summary of G.S. 160A-3 and 153A-3 from my earlier blog post:

For Procedures: If a general law and a local act or charter each provide a procedure that contains every action necessary for the performance of a power, right, duty, function, privilege, or immunity, the two procedures may be used in the alternative and the city or county may use either one. If the general law and the local act or charter both contain such a procedure, but the local act version of it does not contain every action necessary for the performance or execution, then the city or county may choose either one and the local procedure is supplemented as necessary by the procedure in the general law.

For Powers: If a power, duty, function, privilege or immunity is conferred on a city or county by a general law, and a charter or local act enacted earlier than the general law omits or expressly denies or limits the same power, duty, function, privilege or immunity, the general laws supersede the charter or local act.

The effect of these provisions is to give the municipality or county the benefit of a choice between the local act or the general law provision, and to allow the unit to operate under any supplemental procedures and powers that exist in the new general law but not in the existing local act. This is entirely consistent with the presumption that the general law does not extinguish existing local acts.

In some cases, though, the legislature explicitly does displace local acts, and it’s not always easy to find where it’s been done. For example, when the legislature increased the bidding thresholds for public contracts in 1997, the legislation included the following uncodified section:

“Section 8. This act raises the threshold amount in G.S. 143-129 and G.S. 160A-266.  If any local act provides a threshold amount for the subjects addressed in these statutes that is less than the amount provided in this act, this act prevails to the extent of that conflict.”

This is a helpful provision, which gives the unit the benefit of the change without having to obtain a new local act or rely on the statutes governing a conflict between the statute and existing local acts.

Furthermore, when the legislature intends to create uniform rule, it has the power to do it as part of the general law. For example, G.S. 160A-215,  entitled “Uniform provisions for room occupancy tax,” contains the following codified provision: “Subsection (c) of this section applies to all cities that levy an occupancy tax. To the extent subsection (c) conflicts with any provision of a local act, subsection (c) supersedes that provision.”

So when there is a question about which governs, a local act or the general law, these might be the appropriate steps to finding an answer: 1) assume that local acts are not automatically overridden by general laws, 2) investigate enacting legislation (including uncodified provisions) to determine whether and how it might affect existing local acts; and 3) consider whether the general statutory rules of interpretation (G.S. 160A-2; 160A-3) apply.

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