Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 20, 2013

South Carolina Supreme Court Finds Proposed Subdivision Required Planning Commission Approval and Dismisses Equal Protection Claim

In February of 2007, William Floyd, Troy Readen, and Edward McCracken (collectively, “the developers”) purchased property located on Bryan Road in the Town of Hollywood, South Carolina (“Town”). The developers applied to have their property rezoned for residential use. The Town’s Planning Commission responded that instead of rezoning, the developers needed to subdivide their property. This subdivision application would require the developers to “gather information about roadways, drainage, and timber removal,” as well as notify all landowners within a 300-foot radius. When the Planning Commission opened the floor for public comments, Councilwoman Annette Sausser announced her opposition to the subdivision and noted her concerns with traffic, drainage, and the environment. Opposition was likewise expressed by constituents, who also voiced concerns about drainage and traffic. The Town’s zoning administrator, Kenneth Edwards, purported to approve the developers’ proposed subdivision in June of 2007. After the developers began working on the subdivision, the Town issued a stop-work order, which the developers refused to comply with. The Town subsequently sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the trial court to prohibit the developers from subdividing the property without approval from the Planning Commission. The developers responded with counterclaims of equal protection, due process, and state law. The parties eventually agreed to strike the case with leave to restore and attempted to resolve the matter with a Planning Commission hearing.

At the hearing in August of 2008, the Planning Commission explained that before the subdivision could be approved, the developers needed to resolve the traffic, drainage, and environmental issues posed by their project. Commissioner Matthew Wolf was concerned that the subdivision would cause dangerously high levels of traffic on Bryan Road, which he claimed was already “one of the most dangerous roads in Hollywood.” The Planning Commission tabled the request for the developers to address these issues.

In March of 2010, the parties restored their case in the trial court. The Town moved for summary judgment and the developers responded with an affidavit of William Floyd. Floyd stated that the Planning Commission referred the developers to the zoning administrator, then later claimed that the zoning administrator did not have sufficient authority to approve the project. When Floyd asked for the relevant ordinances to see what the law was on the matter, the Town was unable to produce the ordinances because it was “in the process of ‘recodifying’ them.” Floyd claimed that the Town adopted inconsistent policies with the developers in order to prevent the subdivision. The trial court granted the Town’s motion only with regard to its claims for equitable and declaratory relief. The court allowed the developers’ counterclaims to proceed to trial, but held that the developers “may not subdivide their property without the Planning Commission’s approval, and that the plats Edwards signed were ‘null, void and of no effect.’”

At trial, the Town’s most recent zoning administrator, Edward Horton, testified that the developers were informed that there were issues to be resolved before their subdivision could be approved. Horton explained that although the Town’s ordinances do not specifically require traffic studies, traffic studies should be performed in matters of discretion such as here, where the property at issue is located at a dangerous intersection. Mayor Jacqueline Heyward testified that the Planning Commission did not require traffic studies for Wide Awake Park or Holly Grove. She explained that the physical differences between those developments and the developers’ subdivision, in addition to their not being located on dangerous roads, were what made Wide Awake Park and Holly Grove not subject to traffic studies.

The Town moved for a directed verdict on all of the developers’ counterclaims. The developers responded regarding the equal protection claim, contesting the fact that the property adjacent to theirs (“Stono Plantation”) was not subjected to traffic studies: “it is abundantly clear in this record that the two similarly situated property owners are being held to different standards.” The Town argued that the developers offered no evidence of the Stono Plantation’s subdivision approval process. The trial court granted the Town’s motion regarding the state law claims, but denied the motion regarding the equal protection and due process claims. The jury found in favor of the Town on the due process claim and held in favor of the developers’ on their equal protection claim. The trial court denied the Town’s subsequent motion for JNOV, but ultimately granted the Town’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs as the “prevailing party.” Both parties appealed to the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

On appeal, the developers asserted that the trial court incorrectly granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment on its claims for equitable and declaratory relief. The Town argued that the trial court incorrectly denied their motion for a directed verdict and JNOV on the equal protection claim, and in awarding attorney’s fees and costs.

The high court first looked to the Town’s Code, which states that generally, subdivision plats need to be approved by the Planning Commission; however, properties to be subdivided into “three or fewer lots” may be approved by the Town’s zoning administrator as long as all other requirements have been met. Here, the developers sought to subdivide their property into seventeen lots. Since they did not fall into the exception of three or fewer lots, the developers were required to obtain approval from the Planning Commission, which they failed to do. As such, the court here determined that the trial court properly granted the Town’s summary judgment motion on the declaratory and injunctive relief claims. Moreover, the court reasoned that “the Town’s ordinances requiring that the Planning Commission approve subdivision plats existed long before the developers sought to subdivide their property in 2007.” The court acknowledged that it was “troubled” that the Town was unable to produce a copy of the ordinance for the developers, but that the developers still should have known to seek approval from the Planning Commission.

With regard to the equal protection claim, the Town argued that the developers failed to show that they were treated differently than other similarly situated developers. The court explained that the developers needed to demonstrate that “similarly situated persons received disparate treatment, and that the disparate treatment did not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate government purpose.” Significantly, the equal protection clause does not apply when people in different circumstances are treated differently.

The court here found that the developers indeed failed to show that the Planning Commission treated them differently than other similarly situated developers undergoing similar developments. The developers argued that the Stono Plantation, which was never subjected to traffic studies, was an example of a similarly situated comparator that was treated differently. The court held that the Stono Plantation was not similarly situated to the developers’ land because the Stono Plantation’s subdivision took place 13 years before the Town adopted its ordinances.

The court reversed the trial court’s denial of the Town’s motions for a directed verdict and JNOV on the developers’ equal protection claim. Since the Town became the prevailing party, the court also reversed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees and costs to the developers. The court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the Town’s declaratory and injunctive relief claims.

Town of Hollywood v. William Floyd, 403 S.C. 466 (5/15/2013)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.judicial.state.sc.us/opinions/HTMLFiles/SC/27252.pdf


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