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Planning Commissions and Boards Need Space to Work

Groups appointed by a city or town council, like the planning commission or board of architectural review, are often involved in recommendations and decisions on the critical issues of how a city develops, including its land uses, its density and its appearance. The public interest this work can attract — and the potential controversy it can create — means that city councilmembers will themselves often take an interest in the groups’ actions.

Even so, the process runs the most smoothly when councilmembers avoid involvement at the level of the appointed group’s work — avoiding participating in its meetings and avoiding making public comments before the council considers any recommendations it has received. 

Some types of involvement violate state law. SC Code Section 8-13-740(A)(5) prohibits municipal officials from representing a person before any component of the municipality such as appointed boards. For example, imagine that a councilmember works for a development firm. That developer then seeks approval from the architectural review board for a project. The councilmember may not represent the developer in the board’s meeting. 

Even in scenarios without official representation, the councilmember should avoid involvement in the board’s meetings and decisions. In the case of a local planning commission, the commission members make recommendations to be voted on by council. By waiting until the group’s recommendations come before the council for a decision, councilmembers can help avoid distractions and foster a better sense of impartiality. 

Here are planning-related boards and commissions for which councilmembers should avoid involvement:

Local planning commissions

Municipalities that regulate land development must establish a planning commission. Under SC Code Section
6-29-340, the commission is empowered to

  • create and revise a comprehensive plan for the municipality and recommend its adoption to council;
  • make recommendations to the council on how to implement the comprehensive plan through ordinances, regulations, policies or procedures; and 
  • administer the land development regulations adopted by council by approving or disapproving submitted plans and plats.

Boards of zoning appeals

A municipality that adopts a zoning ordinance may create a board of zoning appeals to enforce the ordinance. The powers of such a board, described in SC Code Section 6-29-790, include

  • making decisions on appeals that arise from the administrative decisions of the municipality’s zoning administrator; and 
  • granting or denying applications for variances or special exceptions from zoning ordinances.

The board’s decisions are subject to appeal only to a circuit court, not to the council. 

Boards of architectural review 

Councils can establish boards of architectural review within zoning ordinances that make specific provisions to protect historic and architecturally valuable neighborhoods, as well as scenic areas. As SC Code Section 6-29-880 notes, all of these boards’ powers derive from the zoning ordinance.

When crafting such an ordinance, the council should name any restrictions to the areas under the board’s jurisdiction, such as the conditions required for building, demolishing or altering the appearance of buildings. Clear language explaining the board’s powers and limits is critical for its operations. Its decisions can be appealed to the board of architectural review and to circuit court, but not to council. 

Find information on planning and zoning boards in the Municipal Association’s Comprehensive Planning Guide for Local Governments online.