Virginia Constitution Requires Uniform Distribution of the Metrorail Tax Burden in Fairfax County: FFW Enterprises v. Fairfax County and the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
Uniformity clauses meaningfully restrain legislative power to classify taxpayers. Virginia’s Uniformity Clause, in Article X § 1 of the state Constitution, limits the General Assembly’s power to classify property within a special district when the public improvement benefits the entire designated territory.
While the Uniformity Clause pertains to uniformity within a class of properties, the court below erred in holding that the General Assembly could make any classification it chooses and exempt any properties from that class as long as uniformity exists within the class. In Virginia, as in other states, such provisions mandate that the legislature classify real property to confer equal treatment on similarly situated taxpayers. Thus, when a special district tax is imposed for the benefit of the locality, state uniformity provisions require tax levies across all properties within the geographic scope of the taxed district.
This Court’s decisions requiring geographic equality are consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s and state Supreme Court’s decisions invoking uniformity clauses to bar differential treatment of property within the benefited territory. If the analysis of the trial court were upheld, the result would be absurd, permitting the General Assembly to make any discriminatory classification and rendering the Uniformity Clause a dead letter.
The District and Transportation Tax laws are designed under the theory of benefits conferred. The laws designate territories to be burdened with a tax on the presumption that benefits will inure to all properties within. However, the laws also create conflicting property-specific classifications which are based on the theory of special assessments. As the U.S. Supreme Court has observed, district-wide taxes for public benefit are uniform when they include similarly situated properties. Thus, the tax laws here—stating a purpose to benefit localities while taxing only specific types of properties—are neither rational nor uniform. It is further irrational to believe that a Metrorail extension will serve the interests of only commercial and industrial landowners (and sometimes leasehold estates), when entire districts benefit from the improvements.
If the District and Transportation Tax laws survive constitutional scrutiny, legislative classifications could routinely overburden select groups of private property to finance benefits enjoyed by the broader public. Vesting the General Assembly with the power to make such narrow classifications could create a federal takings challenge, as current law holds that unequal taxation above benefits conferred is a taking of private property for public benefit.