Residential Zoning

South Carolina Supreme Court Upholds Zoning Ordinance: Cites Importance of Controlling "Mass Student Congestion"


Appellant owns a piece of property located within the City of Columbia, South Carolina, zoned RD-DP. Pursuant to that zoning, only one “family” may occupy a single dwelling unit. More importantly, the zoning ordinance defines a “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, of course, is a college “town”. Well, it’s much more than a college “town”, but it IS the home of the University of South Carolina-Columbia. As such, the property at issue was occupied by four unrelated individuals, all of whom were undergraduate students at the University. According to the Court, the “occupants were friends, shared meals and expenses, and operated as a single household.”

Upon inspection, the City’s zoning administrator concluded that four unrelated individuals living together violated the applicable zoning ordinance. The Board of Zoning Appeals affirmed.

The occupants appealed to the circuit court, challenging the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance. Following a hearing, the circuit court held that the ordinance is constitutional; it does not violate the occupants’ due process rights.

In McMaster v. Columbia Board of Zoning Appeals, the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the circuit court and upheld the ordinance. In doing so, the Court applied the following presumption: “A municipal ordinance is a legislative enactment and is presumed to be constitutional. [E]very presumption will be made in favor of the constitutionality of a legislative enactment; and a statute will be declared unconstitutional when its invalidity appears so clear as to leave no room for reasonable doubt that it violates some provision of the Constitution. [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.”

Following the landmark decision in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, the Court found a “rational relationship between the Ordinance’s definition of ‘family’ and the legitimate governmental interests the Ordinance seeks to further.”

And the “governmental interests” at issue? The Court describes the City’s need to “control[] the undesirable qualities associated with ‘mass student congestion’.” Read: fraternity houses.

There is much deference due a local government’s legislative decision. However, will the ordinance survive if applied to a more sensitive matter? There isn’t much sympathy, I’d wager, for the chaps of Sigma Chi.

Mike Thelen is a lawyer in Womble, Carlyle’s Real Estate Litigation practice group. He regularly represents a wide variety of clients, from local governments to businesses, in land use and land development issues in both state and federal venues throughout North Carolina.

Categories: Residential Zoning

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