The Virginia Supreme Court yesterday struck down two controversial local laws aimed at reducing litter in the Washington suburbs by requiring deposits on beverage containers.
Environmentalists, who viewed the rulings as a sharp defeat, and pleased industry spokesmen both said the court's actions involving ordinances in Fairfax and Loudoun counties are among the few -- if not the first -- of their kind in a decade of bottle legislation nationwide.
"We're obviously happy about it," said Albert Barr, spokesman for the Glass Packaging Institute, an industry trade organization. "All of the economic data we've seen indicate that there was a tremendous negative impact on Fairfax County" caused by the law.
The court's finding that the two localities lack authority from the state to require cash deposits on beverage containers, including nonreturnable cans and bottles, marks an apparent end to more than two years of intense debate about the measures in Northern Virginia.
The action leaves the Washington area with no bottle law in effect in any major jurisdiction. An ordinance passed in Montgomery County four years ago is scheduled to take effect this October.
Seven states have passed similar legislation, and the laws are now in effect in six of them.
"We're terribly disappointed," said Marty Treadwell, president of the Fairfax County League of Women Voters, which spent years pushing for the bottle ordinance. "But we're not discouraged."
In the case of Fairfax County, the Supreme Court overturned a recent ruling by the county Circuit Court. The Circuit Court had ruled in the county's favor, rejecting arguments by local beverage distributors that the county's requirement of a 5-cent deposit on soft-drink containers was illegal.
In a separate case, the high court upheld a lower court ruling against Loudoun County's two-year-old ordinance requiring a deposit on alcoholic beverage containers.
"This court has consistently refused to imply powers that the General Assembly clearly did not intend to convey," the court stated in its Fairfax County decision.
It also cited recent failures to pass bottle legislation in the state legislature, saying, "These actions by the General Assembly indicate clearly and unambiguously that the legislature did not intend to grant local governing bodies the power to regulate or prohibit the sale or use of disposable containers."
In turning down Loudoun County's appeal, the court ruled that the county had violated state laws "prohibiting local governing bodies from adopting legislation regulating alcoholic beverages . . ."
Although the decision did not address the Loudoun' County ordinance as it applies to soft-drink containers, county officials said they expect the ruling on Fairfax County's law will apply to theirs as well.
"That's how our legal staff is reading it," said Carl Hendrickson, chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. "The enforcement of it is certainly in question."
Acting Fairfax County Attorney Robert A. Cherin said last night that he had not yet received copy of the opinion.
Cherin said the county could ask for a rehearing by the state court, but for that to be granted there would have to be "very strong" evidence of legal error in the decision. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional grounds was "probably remote," he said.
The supervisors will take up the question on Sept. 8, when they return after a month's recess. But given the shaky support the ordinance has from the present board, an appeal is unlikely.
Local environmentalists and some politicians in both counties fought for years to put the bottle legislation on the books. Though one industry study indicated that the deposit law had caused a drop of as much as 12 percent in soft drink sales in Fairfax County, other studies showed that the measure was widely supported in the community.
"When we passed the bottle ordinance, it was anticipate that a number of the other Northern Virginia jurisdictions would join us," said Alan Magazine, a former Fairfax supervisor who led the fight for the deposit law. "And I think that lack of a unified approach to solve the litter problemem somewhat watered down the impact of the county ordinance and even some of the support of those who supported the ordinance.
"I think its unfortunate," said Magazine. "However, I also recognize that it is hard for one jurisdiction to go it alone."
The Fairfax County law was challenged in court almost immediately after it went into effect three years ago. Beverage distributors claimed it hurt their sales and a new County Board considered repealing it this year.
Some agreed with local businessmen that the law was encouraging residents to cross county lines to purchase soft drinks. Others saw the measure as a test of the county's ability to set its own standards.
"Essentially, this question focuses not on bottles, but on the police power of the board," said Supervisor Martha V. Pennino in January. "If that's eroded away, then we may as well go home and hang up our hats."
In Richmond, several attempts to enact a similar law statewide failed to pass the state legislature.One measure that did pass prohibited any Virginia jurisdictions besides Fairfax and Loudoun counties from adopting bottle deposit ordinances.
Two years ago the legislative passed the Litter Control Act, hailed by industry. The act established the Litter Control Commission and has resulted in a widely advertised campaign against litter.
Industry officials cite studies indicating that the commission's efforts may have resulted in a 60 percent reduction of litter in the state. But critics argue that the state is not spending enough money on personnel to clean up roadsides and that there is a continuing need to attack litter at its source.
"In my opinion, we've seen a significant reduction in roadside litter" because of the Loudoun ordinance, said Hendrickson. "We had hoped that the court would uphold the other portion (of the ordinance) and reduce the blight on our roadsides caused by alcoholic beverage containers."
Environmentalists are said to be grouping for a major lobbying effort to see a deposit law passed in Richmond. "If anything, this ruling was encouraging because it didn't rule on the merits of the law, just a procedural matter," said Treadwell. "We plan to carry it further on its merits to the state."