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Avoiding Planning and Zoning Lawsuits

Development projects can transform the character of a city, creating economic opportunities for residents and businesses. In many cases, though, they can stoke fears that the community’s character will be diminished. Residents often have passionate feelings about what kind of new developments appear near their homes, their schools and along the roads they use. 

Land use planning and zoning highlights the challenge of balancing individual property owners’ rights and protecting the community's rights as a whole. The decisions a city makes about the community's future can lead to lawsuits, but there are steps they can take to help avoid litigation. 

Liability for local governments

Municipalities have three roles in land use matters:

  • Legislative role – State law requires those cities and towns with planning commissions to adopt local comprehensive plans containing several required elements, as described in SC Code Section 6-29-510. Councilmembers also plan for development through the passage of zoning ordinances.
  • Quasi-judicial role – Municipal staff review project proposals to make sure they are consistent with comprehensive plans and relevant ordinances. Staff then make recommendations to planning and zoning boards and commissions.
  • Enforcement role – Both staff and board or commission members implement the city's development vision by making sure that approved projects comply with applicable laws and conditions imposed.

A local government is not liable for losses resulting from legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial action or inaction or for loss from discretionary action or inaction (SC Code Section 15-78-60).

Liability for officials

Zoning officials as well as members of a planning commission, board of zoning appeals or board of architectural review are all considered to be government employees subject to the SC Tort Claims Act (SC Code Section 15-78-10). 

While the Act preserves sovereign immunity for government employees who commit a tort while acting within the scope of their official duties, the immunity is not available if the "conduct was not within the scope of his official duties or that it constituted actual fraud, actual malice, intent to harm, or a crime involving moral turpitude."

Reducing litigation risk

Mayors, councilmembers, board and commission members, and staff should follow these steps to help avoid litigation.

  • Council should ensure it has adopted both a zoning ordinance and a comprehensive plan that addresses all state requirements.
  • Periodically, council should update the comprehensive plan and applicable ordinances to reflect any changes in state law. South Carolina Code Section 6-29-510(E) requires that the local planning commission review the comprehensive plan no less often than every five years. It also requires the commission to update all elements of the comprehensive plan no less often than every 10 years.
  • Municipal staff, as well as commission or board members, should always follow the municipality's zoning ordinance or comprehensive plan when reviewing project requests. They should deny any request that is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.
  • Commission and board members should consider all information submitted with requests. They should note in their meeting minutes that material has been submitted and reviewed.
  • Council, staff and commission or board members should make all decisions in an objective and consistent manner.
  • Staff as well as commission and board members should document the decision-making process accurately and completely. The basis for zoning decisions should be clear in the minutes of meetings.
  • Staff should review all decisions with an attorney who is familiar with zoning issues, ordinances and public meeting requirements, and applicable state and federal laws.
  • Council, staff and commission or board members should follow all requirements for meetings found in the SC Freedom of Information Act.

Learn more about planning liability in the Municipal Association’s Comprehensive Planning Guide for Local Governments at (keyword: planning guide).