McMaster v. D.C. Bd. of Zoning Appeals

Decision Date12 December 2011
Docket NumberNo. 27075.,27075.
Citation275 Ed. Law Rep. 434,395 S.C. 499,719 S.E.2d 660
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesPeggy McMASTER, d/b/a PJM Properties and Gray McGurn, Appellants, v. COLUMBIA BOARD OF ZONING APPEALS, Christopher Barczak, Ernest W. Cromartie, III, Elaine Gillespie, Alvin Hinkle, Lowndes T. Pope, Charles Watson, and Elizabeth Webber–Akre, in their official capacities as members of the Columbia Board of Zoning Appeals and City of Columbia, Respondents.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Henry Dargan McMaster, of Columbia, Lance S. Boozer, of Tompkins & McMaster, of Columbia, for Appellants.

Peter Michael Balthazor, of Columbia, for Respondents.

Danny C. Crowe and R. Hawthorne Barrett, of Turner Padget Graham & Laney, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae Municipal Association of South Carolina, Marcus A. Manos, of Nexsen Pruet, of Columbia, and Thomas R. Gottshall, of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae University Hill Neighborhood Association of Columbia.PER CURIAM.

This case requires us to consider whether the City of Columbia Zoning Ordinance (hereinafter “the Ordinance”), which limits to three the number of unrelated persons who may reside together as a single housekeeping unit, violates the Due Process Clause of the South Carolina Constitution. We find it does not.1

I.

The facts of this case are not in dispute. The property which is the subject of this appeal (“the property”) is owned by Appellant McMaster and is located in the City of Columbia (“the City”) in the immediate vicinity of the University of South Carolina. The property constitutes a single dwelling unit and is located within a RD–DP zoning district.2 Pursuant to the Ordinance, only one “family” may occupy a single dwelling unit. The Ordinance defines family as “an individual; or two or more persons related by blood or marriage living together; or a group of individuals, of not more than three persons, not related by blood or marriage but living together as a single housekeeping unit. Columbia City Code § 17–55 (emphasis added).

At the time this dispute arose, the property was occupied by four unrelated individuals—Appellant Gray McGurn and three other young women, all of whom were undergraduate students at the University of South Carolina. The occupants were friends, shared meals and expenses, and operated as a single household.

After receiving a neighborhood complaint, the City's Zoning Administrator conducted an investigation and determined that more than three unrelated individuals were occupying the property, in violation of the Ordinance. The City sent McMaster a notice of zoning violation, directing that occupancy be reduced to no more than three unrelated persons within thirty days. McMaster appealed the violation notice to the City's Board of Zoning Appeals (“the Board”), arguing the Ordinance was not violated and, in the alternative, the Ordinance was unconstitutional. Following a hearing, the Board affirmed the zoning violation.

Appellants appealed the Board's decision to the circuit court pursuant to S.C.Code § 6–29–820, challenging the constitutionality of the Ordinance under federal and state law, which was narrowed to a challenge under our state constitution. Following a hearing, the circuit court found the Ordinance's definition of family did not violate the Due Process Clause of the South Carolina Constitution. Specifically, the circuit court found Appellants failed to meet their burden of proving the limitations set forth in the Ordinance were not reasonably related to any legitimate governmental interest. The circuit court further found the City had not acted arbitrarily or wrongfully in passing the Ordinance and, therefore, had not infringed upon Appellants' substantive due process rights under the state constitution.

Because Appellants challenge the constitutionality of the Ordinance, the matter was directly appealed to this Court. See S.C.Code § 14–8–200(b)(3) (Supp.2010) (providing the right of appeal from a final judgment involving a challenge on state or federal grounds to the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance lies directly to the Supreme Court).

II.

An issue regarding interpretation of a legislative enactment is a question of law. City of Rock Hill v. Harris, 391 S.C. 149, 152, 705 S.E.2d 53, 54 (2011). In a case raising a novel question of law, the Court is free to decide the question with no particular deference to the lower court. Id.

III.

Appellants argue that the Ordinance's definition of “family,” which limits to three the number of unrelated persons who may reside together as a single housekeeping unit, arbitrarily and capriciously deprives them of a cognizable property interest in violation of the Due Process Clause of the South Carolina Constitution.3 We disagree.

“A municipal ordinance is a legislative enactment and is presumed to be constitutional.” Town of Scranton v. Willoughby, 306 S.C. 421, 422, 412 S.E.2d 424, 425 (1992). [E]very presumption will be made in favor of the constitutionality of a legislative enactment; and a statute will be declared unconstitutional only when its invalidity appears so clearly as to leave no room for reasonable doubt that it violates some provision of the Constitution.” Harris, 391 S.C. at 154, 705 S.E.2d at 55. [T]he power to declare an ordinance invalid because it is so unreasonable as to impair or destroy constitutional rights is one which will be exercised carefully and cautiously, as it is not the function of the Court to pass upon the wisdom or expediency of municipal ordinances or regulations.” Rush v. City of Greenville, 246 S.C. 268, 276, 143 S.E.2d 527, 531 (1965).

“The authority of a municipality to enact zoning ordinances, restricting the use of privately owned property is founded in the police power.” Id. In reviewing substantive due process challenges to municipal ordinances, a court must consider whether the ordinance bears a reasonable relationship to any legitimate interest of government. Denene, Inc. v. City of Charleston, 359 S.C. 85, 96, 596 S.E.2d 917, 923 (2004). The validity of a particular zoning ordinance must be considered not in the abstract, but in connection with the locality and surrounding circumstances. See Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, 387–88, 47 S.Ct. 114, 71 L.Ed. 303 (1926) (noting the line dividing valid and invalid zoning ordinances is not capable of precise delimitation but rather varies with the surrounding circumstances and stating that [a] regulatory zoning ordinance, which would clearly be valid as applied to the great cities, might be clearly invalid as applied to rural communities”).

“In order to prove a denial of substantive due process, a party must show that he was arbitrarily and capriciously deprived of a cognizable property interest rooted in state law.” Denene 359 S.C. at 96, 596 S.E.2d at 923. “The burden of proving the invalidity of a zoning ordinance is on the party attacking it, and it is incumbent upon [the challenger] to show the arbitrary and capricious character of the ordinance through clear and convincing evidence.” Id. “A legislative body does not deny due process simply because it does not permit a landowner to make the most beneficial use of its property.” Harbit v. City of Charleston, 382 S.C. 383, 394, 675 S.E.2d 776, 782 (Ct.App.2009).

In Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 94 S.Ct. 1536, 39 L.Ed.2d 797 (1974), the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a similar zoning ordinance which prevented more than two unrelated persons from living together in the same household. Belle Terre charged the property owner with violating the zoning ordinance after he rented the home to six unrelated students from a local university. The Supreme Court found zoning ordinances which limit the number of unrelated people who may live together in one household do not implicate a fundamental right of association or privacy and are a valid exercise of a state's police power. 4 Id. at 7–9, 94 S.Ct. 1536.

Although Belle Terre established that the federal constitution does not afford substantive due process protection in this instance, state courts are free to conclude that their respective state constitutions do provide such protection. Appellants argue the City's definition of “family” is arbitrary and capricious and bears no rational relationship to any legitimate state interest of government in violation of the South Carolina constitution. 5 Appellants also argue the Ordinance excludes many groups of individuals which should be permitted to reside together as a single housekeeping unit.6

However, as many other states have found,7 we find the rationale of Belle Terre persuasive and find there is a rational relationship between the Ordinance's definition of “family” and the legitimate governmental interests the Ordinance seeks to further. See Belle Terre 416 U.S. at 8, 94 S.Ct. 1536 ([E]very line drawn by a legislature leaves some out that might well have been included. That exercise of discretion, however, is a legislative, not a judicial, function.”). Where the rational relationship standard is utilized, the law must be upheld if it furthers any legitimate governmental purpose. Further, we must consider the Ordinance in the context of the surrounding area, including the fact that the City is home to several colleges and universities.8

With that in mind, we find the Ordinance is a valid exercise of the City's broad police power and that there is a rational relationship between the City's decision to limit to three the number of unrelated individuals who may live together as a single housekeeping unit and the legitimate governmental interests of controlling the undesirable qualities associated with “mass student congestion.” Cf. Harbit, 382 S.C. at 395, 675 S.E.2d at 782 (finding that because the City of Charleston's zoning decision was reasonably founded and rationally related to its stated interests of preserving...

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