Quail Hill LLC v. County Of Richland

Citation387 S.C. 223,692 S.E.2d 499
Decision Date22 March 2010
Docket NumberNo. 26788.,26788.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
PartiesQUAIL HILL, LLC, Respondent,v.COUNTY OF RICHLAND, South Carolina, Petitioner.

387 S.C. 223
692 S.E.2d 499

QUAIL HILL, LLC, Respondent,
COUNTY OF RICHLAND, South Carolina, Petitioner.

No. 26788.

Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Heard Jan. 7, 2010.
Decided March 22, 2010.

692 S.E.2d 500


692 S.E.2d 501
Andrew F. Lindemann, William H. Davidson, II, Michael B. Wren, of Davidson & Lindemann, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Charles E. Carpenter, Jr., Carmen V. Ganjehsani, Sharon Plyler Besley, of Carpenter Appeals and Trial Support, of Columbia, and Clifford O. Koon, Jr., Paul D. deHolczer, Robert L. Brown, of Moses Koon and Brackett, of Columbia, for Respondent.

Justice BEATTY.

In this zoning dispute case, this Court granted Richland County's (County's) petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals in Quail Hill, LLC v. County of Richland, South Carolina, 379 S.C. 314, 665 S.E.2d 194 (Ct.App.2008), in which the Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part the grant of summary judgment in favor of County as to Quail Hill, LLC's (Quail Hill's) claims stemming from the issuance of inaccurate zoning information by County employees. We affirm in part and reverse in part.


In late 2002, Quail Hill sought to acquire a 72.5 acre parcel of property in Richland County to develop a manufactured-home subdivision. To assist in procuring this property, Quail Hill contacted Phillip Aylan Brown, Jr., a licensed real estate broker, and authorized him to act as its agent. In January 2003, Brown met with Carl Gosline, the Richland County Subdivision Coordinator, to determine whether the parcel was suitable for the development of manufactured housing. According to Brown, Gosline told him the parcel was zoned RU (rural) based on information obtained from Gosline's computer. Brown also testified the tax bill from the Tax Assessor's office listed the parcel's zoning as RU. A zoning classification of RU allows the property to be developed as a manufactured-home subdivision.

On March 13, 2003, Quail Hill purchased the property and then surveyed, platted, and prepared it for development. In September 2003, Quail Hill filed an application with the Richland County Planning Commission (“Planning Commission”) for site plan approval for the development of the subject property as a twenty-lot, manufactured-housing subdivision. On October 6, 2003, the Richland County Development Services Department issued a report for the Planning Commission in which it recommended approval of Quail Hill's subdivision plan. Subsequently,

692 S.E.2d 502
the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve Quail Hill's site plan for the property. In turn, Quail Hill began marketing and selling lots for the subdivision. According to Quail Hill, five lots were then sold, with manufactured homes being installed on two of the lots.

In November 2004, neighboring landowners contacted their County Council representative and asked him to attend a meeting regarding Quail Hill's subdivision. Geonard Price, the County's Zoning Administrator,1 accompanied the County Council member to the meeting, where the neighbors inquired about zoning restrictions and expressed opposition to Quail Hill's development. Following this meeting, Price consulted the County's Official Zoning Map 2 and found the subject property was zoned RS-1, a residential classification that prohibits manufactured homes.

Based on the RS-1 zoning classification, County staff informed Quail Hill on November 4, 2004, that it was prohibited from developing manufactured housing on the property. On November 17, 2004, Price issued an order requiring Quail Hill to cease development of the subdivision except for those uses permitted under the RS-1 zoning district.

Following this order, Quail Hill representatives met with County staff who revealed that Gosline had erroneously advised Quail Hill the property was zoned RU, and that records from the Planning Development Services Division and the Tax Assessor's office differed from the Official Zoning Map. According to Quail Hill, County staff advised it to apply for a zoning map change. However, after Quail Hill applied for the zoning map change, the Planning Commission's report recommended the change be denied. Ultimately, County Council denied Quail Hill's request.

Quail Hill did not appeal County Council's finding, but instead filed suit against County. In its Complaint, Quail Hill requested an injunction and asserted causes of action against County for equitable estoppel, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, and inverse condemnation. Additionally, Quail Hill sought an order requiring County to change zoning of the subject property from RS-1 to RU. Alternatively, Quail Hill sought actual damages and attorney's fees and costs.

After filing an Answer to Quail Hill's allegations, County moved for summary judgment as to all causes of action. In opposition to this motion, Quail Hill introduced a printout of the website for the Richland County Development Services Division, where Gosline worked. The website stated in part:

Since 1997 the department has performed the planning, zoning and land use management staff functions of county government. The department provides principal staff support to the Planning Commission, and Board of Zoning Appeals. Subdivisions, site plans, map amendments, variances, special exceptions and sign permit applications are filed at the Development Services Counter. The Development Services counter is the key point of public contact for the planning and zoning functions of the County. It is the primary information resource of property owners and land use professionals who often need to know “What can and can not [sic] be done with a piece of property.”

The site also contained a section of “Frequently Asked Questions.” Amongst these questions was the following: “How do I find out how my property is zoned?” The answer states:
A request for zoning verification of any parcel within the unincorporated area of Richland County can be obtained from: Richland County Planning Development.... Please include the current Tax Parcel Number, Street Address, if available,
692 S.E.2d 503
size of tract, or any information that will assist us in locating the correct parcel.

Another question on the site is: “Who should I talk to about Zoning Issues?” The answer lists the Development Services Manager and the Zoning Administrator, and provides a brief explanation that the “staff can informally respond to any concerns or requirements that must be complied with and also inform you of anything that may impact your project.”

At the conclusion of the hearing on the summary judgment motion, the circuit court judge ruled in favor of County as to all of Quail Hill's causes of action.3 In a subsequent written order, the circuit court judge explained his ruling.

In terms of equitable estoppel, the judge prefaced his discussion with the fact that the “Richland County Zoning Ordinances provide that the official zoning map of Richland County constitutes the only official description of the location of zoning district boundaries, and that the zoning administrator is the only representative on behalf of Richland County that can interpret the official zoning map.” The judge further noted that zoning ordinances and state law authorize County Council as the only entity that can adopt or amend zoning designations in the County. Additionally, the judge found that neither Gosline nor the Tax Assessor's office had the authority to interpret, alter, or amend the zoning classifications of property, and any such act would clearly be outside the scope of their authority.

As a result, the judge concluded that “equitable estoppel cannot be applied to frustrate Richland County's attempts to enforce its zoning ordinances.” The judge further found Quail Hill had the means to acquire knowledge of the zoning designation of the property because the Official Zoning Map and County ordinances are public record; thus, Quail Hill could not claim to have been misled.

As to Quail Hill's causes of action for negligence and negligent misrepresentation, the trial judge found it was well settled that the South Carolina Tort Claims Act (the Act) 4 governs all tort claims against governmental entities and that the Act is the exclusive civil remedy available in an action against a governmental entity or its employees. Based on the Act, the judge concluded that a governmental entity is liable for its torts in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.

In view of these rules, the judge concluded that County could be liable for negligence and negligent misrepresentation in enforcing and administering zoning “only if a private person can also be held liable for breach of that same duty under South Carolina law.” The judge found the duty of care regarding zoning is a uniquely governmental function with no analogous private counterpart.

The judge further held that sections 15-78-40 and 15-78-50(b) of the Act, by their express language, “do not allow for tort liability in this action.” Based on this reasoning, the judge concluded that to allow Quail Hill to recover would hold County liable for the negligence of its employees where a private person could not be held liable under state law. Accordingly, the judge found County's sovereign immunity had not been waived.

As an additional basis for granting summary judgment, the judge found that County would be immune from liability under section 15-78-60(4) of the Act “for any compliance, enforcement or failure to enforce” the applicable zoning ordinances. Based on the language of the statute, the judge concluded that County was entitled to absolute sovereign immunity for its compliance or enforcement of its zoning ordinances, which included the designations on the Official Zoning Map. The judge also found County could not be liable for failing to adopt or enforce an RU zoning classification on the property.


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