Say there is going to be a federal facility, operated by the federal government or by a contractor of the federal government, in a town. Something like a prison, or a place where ICE plans to imprison children in their custody.

Say the town is concerned about this, so they enact a bunch of relevant building and zoning code rules. Detention facilities can occupy no more than 20% of their lot, and have a maximum capacity of 100 people total, and 1 person per 1000 square feet, and must be made entirely of non-flamible materials, and can be only two stories, and can only be in an area zoned for residential use, etc. They don't actually say the federal government can't do that here, but that if they do it had better be the highest-quality facility in the country (and thus quite expensive to build and run).

Would being directly built, owned, and operated by the federal government, or under contract for the federal government by a private entity, exempt a facility from this sort of local regulation on its construction and occupancy?

2 Answers 2


The federal government is not bound by local zoning laws unless it wants to be. Federal contractors can be bound to some extent, but a state cannot regulate federal contractors as a sneaky backdoor way of regulating the federal government.

The federal government's own immunity from local zoning laws is pretty simple. Unless Congress has explicitly said otherwise, state and local governments cannot enforce their laws against the United States. Federal agencies often have a policy of complying with state laws, but that's based on the idea that the state law isn't really interfering with the federal government. An agency would be much less likely to voluntarily comply with a state policy that actually interferes with its operations.

Federal contractors aren't automatically immune to state law, but the state can't regulate them as a way to illegally regulate the federal government. A very recent and on-point case was GEO Group v. Newsom, over California's AB 32. AB 32 banned any private entity in the state of California from providing prison or detention services to any customer. That's fine when it comes to state customers, but as applied to federal contracts it would illegally control the actions of federal agencies. Any zoning regulations would generally fall afoul of this, especially when they are designed to make it basically impossible for the feds to perform legitimate federal activities.

At the district court level, there have been a number of cases where local governments have tried to apply zoning laws to federal facilities. A lot of these involve post offices, and a lot of the cases cite entire strings of previous similar cases. For instance, US Postal Service v. City of Hollywood, Fla. cites 7 previous cases. USPS has more recently had a legislative change requiring them to consider local zoning laws and building codes, and GSA has a similar requirement, but that doesn't mean they must always obey them.

I'm unable to tell to what extent leased property can be exempted from state building codes. The post office cases involve a lot of leased property where a post office could be built despite violating local zoning laws or building codes. However, GSA standards say that leased property has to comply with all state and local laws. It's possible there's some statute I missed, or some more recent judicial decision I missed, or that it's just GSA policy not to invoke supremacy for leased property. The federal government can certainly combine contractor operation with government ownership; for instance, most of the national labs use this model.

Also, most of the rules here assume that everyone is basically trying to be reasonable and at most there's an administrative turf war. When a state or local government is specifically trying to interfere with the federal government, the feds and the courts are generally more willing to block them. If a city has strict rules about fire safety because they're in a wildfire area, the feds will be inclined to follow those rules. If a city imposes strict rules about fire safety that only apply to a particular federal facility they hate, the feds will be inclined to ignore the rules.

  • In the early 70’s I worked at the VA hospital in Boston. When the power went out we exited by the stairway in partial darkness. Windows but no energy lights that would have been required by local ordinance. Also the federally owned cars were never tested for state safety requirements. Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 7:04

Yes, a higher-level government facility and federal employees are or should be bound by local laws. If these laws are inadequate, then it is the higher-level government's responsibility to teach them or choose a different location. In absence of co-operation at the local level, they can talk to the Executive at the lower government or even bring it to Court if they're hostile and let the best argument win.

Imagine if you were to allow the opposite. Let's say federal police officers don't need to obey local laws. What sort of lesson would this send to the People about their federal government?

  • “Let's say a federal police officers don't have to obey local laws.” They quite literally do not, as long as they’re acting within the scope of their federal duties.
    – cpast
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 1:06
  • @cpast: So a federal officer is above a state law? Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 1:32
  • An valid opinion of what the law should be. An invalid statement of what the law actually is.
    – bdb484
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 8:05
  • 1
    @MarkRosenblitt-Janssen No. But a federal law, and its execution, are not subject to limitation by state law. If a federal law says “such-and-such an agency is ordered to build such-and-such a building”, a state can’t decide to make them jump through hoops to be allowed to do it.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 14:55
  • @bdb484: The law is of the People. It's not an "invalid" statement because I am a person of my own law, unless you can show the law or Court decision that says otherwise. Commented Jan 1 at 18:57

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