Opinion 98-23

This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

LOCAL LAWS -- Pre-emption (establishment of maximum speed limits in villages)

VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC REGULATIONS -- Villages (designation of twenty-five m.p.h. zones)

VILLAGE AND TRAFFIC LAW, §§1600, 1643; MUNICIPAL HOME RULE LAW, §10(1)(ii)(a)(6): A village may not, pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law, §1643 or by local law, impose a village-wide maximum speed limit of twenty-five m.p.h. A village also may not establish such a speed limit within designated areas of the village. A village may, however, if separately and independently justified on a case-by-case basis, designate one or more portions of a village street, on a linear basis, as twenty-five m.p.h. zones.

You inquire whether, pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law, §1643, a village may establish a village-wide maximum speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour ("m.p.h.") and, if it may not, whether any particular percentage of the village's roadways may be designated to have such a speed limit.

Section 1643 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law provides in pertinent part as follows:

The legislative body of any ... village with respect to highways ... in such ... village ... may by local law, ordinance1, order, rule or regulation establish maximum speed limits at which vehicles may proceed within such ... village, within designated areas of such ... village or on or along designated highways within such ... village higher or lower than the fifty-five miles per hour maximum statutory limit.No such speed limit applicable throughout such ... village or within designated areas of such ... village shall be established at less than thirty miles per hour. No such speed limit applicable on or along designated highways within such ... village shall be established at less than twenty five miles per hour ...[emphasis added]

Based on the language of the statute which provides that no speed limit of less than thirty m.p.h. may be applicable "throughout" a village, it is clear that section 1643 prohibits a village-wide speed limit of less than thirty m.p.h. (see, e.g.,PeoplevStone, 138 Misc 2d 520, 524 NYS2d 1001). Accordingly, a village has no authority under section 1643 to impose a village-wide maximum speed limit of twenty-five m.p.h.

Section 1643 also expressly prohibits a speed limit at less than thirty m.p.h. within any "designated area" of the village. Rather, a village is authorized to establish a speed limit at less than thirty m.p.h., but not less than twenty-five m.p.h., only "on or along designated highways" within the village. The Legislative history of section 1643 indicates that the intent of the statute is to generally authorize a uniform minimum speed limit of thirty m.p.h. in villages, while permitting a reduction to twenty-five m.p.h in "a few special cases where ... appropriate" on a "linear" basis on or along designated highways (see Memorandum of the Joint Legislative Committee on Motor Vehicles and Traffic Safety for chapter 844 of the Laws of 1964, 1964 New York State Legislative Annual, p 419; 1964 Opns Atty Gen p 39).

The statute does not indicate any particular percentage or number of highways which may be designated at twenty-five m.p.h. Consistent with the Legislative intent, however, we believe the village must justify each linear portion of a highway designated as a twenty-five m.p.h. zone on a case-by-case basis. Before establishing a twenty-five m.p.h speed limit on or along a designated highway, the village should determine that the limit is "reasonable", that is, necessary and justified by the requirements of public safety, and non-discriminatory (see, e.g.,People v Randazzo, 60 NY2d 952, 471 NYS2d 52 [mem. and dissenting opinions]). In addition, we note that it is a basic principle that a municipality may not do indirectly that which it may not do directly (see, e.g.,Wein v State of New York, 39 NY2d 136, 383 NYS2d 225). Therefore, it is our opinion that the village may not, under the guise of imposing linear 25 m.p.h. speed limits on several neighboring designated highways, avoid the prohibition against imposing such a speed limit on an area basis. Each linear designation must be separately and independently justified as a "special case".

Finally, we note that a village may not, pursuant to its home rule power, supersede the provisions of Vehicle and Traffic Law, §1643. Municipal Home Rule Law, §10 authorizes local governments to, inter alia, adopt local laws, not inconsistent with any general law or the Constitution, relating to certain enumerated subjects, including the management and use of its highways, roads, streets, avenues and property "except to the extent that the legislature shall restrict the adoption of such a local law" (Municipal Home Rule Law, §10[1][ii][a][6]; emphasis added). Further, the doctrine of preemption represents a fundamental limitation on the home rule powers of a local government (see, e.g.,Village of Nyack v Daytop Village, Inc., 78 NY2d 500, 577 NYS2d 215). Vehicle and Traffic Law, §1600, in part, provides as follows:

The provisions of this chapter shall be applicable and uniform throughout the state and in all political subdivisions and municipalities therein and no local authority shall enact or enforce any local law, order, rule or regulation in conflict with the provisions of this chapter unless expressly authorized herein (see also Vehicle and Traffic Law, §1604).

Section 1600 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, therefore, prohibits the adoption of local laws, pursuant to the Municipal Home Rule Law, superseding provisions of Vehicle and Traffic Law.

December 29, 1998
Lawrence Praga, Esq., Attorney at Law
Village of Pelham

1 Note that, as of September 1, 1974, villages no longer have the power to adopt ordinances (see, e.g., 30 Opns St Comp, 1974, p 135).