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County of Charleston v. Finish Line Foundation II Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

April 30, 2018

County of Charleston, South Carolina Plaintiff,
Finish Line Foundation II Inc, et al. Defendants.



         This matter comes before the court on County of Charleston's motion for abstention. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         County of Charleston filed this suit against defendants Finish Line Foundation II (“Finish Line”), KRF XSL LLC (“KRF”), SC Investment Holdings LLC (“SC Investment”), and Kiawah River Farms LLC (“Kiawah River Farms”), Kiawah River Excavating and Earthworks LLC (“Earthworks”), Kiawah River Stables LLC (“Kiawah River”) (collectively, “defendants”) in order to stop their allegedly illegal development of land on Johns Island. In early September, 2017, the Charleston County Planning and Zoning Department (“Zoning”) discovered that the following land development activities had occurred on defendants' properties without permits: “use of commercial land clearing equipment to clear and grub land, cutting and removal of protected trees, uncontrolled burning of vegetative waste, and resource extraction and mining.” Compl. ¶¶ 12-14. County of Charleston claims that these activities violated the county's zoning requirements. Id. ¶¶ 14-16. It further claims that it informed defendants of these violations through letters, personal meetings, and Stop Work Orders, and that on September 28, 2017, County of Charleston was assured that all work had ceased. Id. ¶ 19-24. County of Charleston claims that it dismissed the violations with the understanding that defendants would take corrective action and apply for the necessary permits, yet that land-clearing activities continued through November 2017. Id. ¶ 25. On November 21, 2017, Zoning issued 45 Ordinance Summons to defendants. Id. ¶ 26.

         On November 30, 2017, County of Charleston filed this action in the County of Charleston Circuit Court, because it believes that defendants will not comply with the zoning regulations despite their promise to do so. Id. ¶ 27. It requests that the court find that defendants have violated certain Zoning and Land Development Regulations (“ZLDR”) and enter an injunction to prohibit any further development, particularly the damage and removal of trees. Id. ¶¶ 28-31. Additionally, County of Charleston asks the Court to issue an order finding defendants in violation of ZLDR 6.4.23 and, pursuant to S.C. Code § 48-23-205, declare that defendants have been conducting forestry activities and are barred from applying for building permits, site disturbances, subdivision plans, or any other approval for development on their properties in Charleston County for five years. Id. ¶ 35. County of Charleston also sues Kiawah River Farms and Kiawah River Excavating and Earthworks, LLC (“Earthworks”), and Kiawah River Stables, LLC (“Kiawah River Stables”) for operating in South Carolina without a business license. Id. ¶¶ 36-41.

         Defendants removed the matter on December 28, 2017, based on diversity jurisdiction. ECF No. 1. County of Charleston filed its motion for abstention on January 26, 2018, ECF No. 8. On February 15, 2018, defendants filed their answer to the complaint, along with several counterclaims, and on February 16, 2018, they filed their response to the motion for abstention. ECF Nos. 11 and 12. On February 23, 2018, County of Charleston filed a reply. ECF No. 16. On March 5, 2018, defendants filed a sur reply, ECF No. 19, and on March 12, 2018, County of Charleston filed its own sur reply, ECF No. 24. The motion has been briefed to within an inch of its life and is ripe for the court's review.


         County of Charleston asks the court to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction of this case under the Burford Doctrine because this dispute revolves around “local county and state laws of public importance involving zoning and land use issues that should be decided by the County and State court.” Pl.'s Mot. at 3. Defendants oppose the motion, arguing that there is not a sufficiently complex administrative scheme involved here to justify a Burford abstention and that their federal counterclaims should be heard by the district court. Defs.' Resp. at 3, 7. Specifically, defendants brought counterclaims alleging that County of Charleston's attempt to deprive defendants from using their property for five years constitutes an unconstitutional deprivation of defendants' rights to beneficial use of their property without just compensation, in violation of the Takings Clause. Defs.' Ans. ¶¶ 51-55. Defendants also argue that this requested five-year ban on development violates their due process rights, as they had no notice that the county could impose such a penalty, and as such the relevant statute or ordinance is unconstitutionally vague.[1] Id. ¶¶ 59-63. The court agrees with County of Charleston and grants the motion to abstain.

         In Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 320 (1943), the Supreme Court considered whether to enjoin the enforcement of the Texas Railroad Commission's order permitting the company Burford to drill for oil. The Court determined that if it chose to review the state of Texas's complex regulatory system for oil-drilling, it could cause “[d]elay, misunderstanding of local law, and needless federal conflict with the State policy.” Burford, 319 U.S. at 326. The Court dismissed the complaint, finding that “[u]nder such circumstances, a sound respect for the independence of state action requires the federal equity court to stay its hand.” Id. at 334. Several Supreme Court decisions since Burford have further developed this doctrine, requiring courts to decline to exercise their jurisdiction over the proceedings or orders of state administrative agencies:

(1) when there are difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar; or (2) where the exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.

New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 361 (1989) (internal quotation marks omitted). “The Burford abstention doctrine relaxes the otherwise ‘unflagging' mandate of Article III when an adjudication may undermine the ‘independence of state action on issues that are local and important to a state's sovereignty.” Town of Nags Head v. Toloczko, 728 F.3d 391, 395 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 728 (1996)).

         The Fourth Circuit has regularly applied the Burford Doctrine to disputes over local zoning regulations. See e.g., Pomponio v. Fauquier Cty. Bd. of Sup'rs, 21 F.3d 1319 (4th Cir. 1994). In Pomponio, a real estate developer brought suit regarding a local zoning commission's denial of his zoning permit application. In deciding to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the case, the Fourth Circuit concluded that “local zoning and land use law is particularly the province of the State and that federal courts should be wary of intervening in that area in the ordinary case, ” because a federal court's “review of the question . . . would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.” Id. at 1327 (internal citations omitted). The court also relied on prior Fourth Circuit Cases in which “[t]he federal claims are really state law claims because it is either the zoning or land use decisions, decisional processes, or laws that are the basis for the plaintiffs' federal claims.” Pomponio, 21 F.3d at 1326. It found it “clear that in most of these cases requiring Burford abstention, the federal claim cannot be untangled from the state or local zoning or land use law.” Id. The court firmly established that federal courts should abstain under Burford from deciding cases where a plaintiff's federal claims “stem solely from construction of state or local land use or zoning law, not involving the constitutional validity of the same.” Id. Examples of cases which “reflect[ ] the presence of a genuine and independent federal claim” include religious prejudice, federal statutory preemption, and first amendment violations. Id.

         The case at hand involves a dispute over the terms of County of Charleston's zoning regulations, as well as defendants' federal-law counterclaims. As made clear by Pomponio, disputes over land use and zoning laws fall squarely into the realm of cases over which federal courts should decline to exercise jurisdiction. Here, the County of Charleston seeks to enforce its zoning regulations and to have defendants adhere to the citations it issued regarding those regulations. Defendants' argue in response that, under the terms and definitions of the regulations, they have not violated any local law and should be permitted to continue developing their real property. Though the court has jurisdiction over this matter due to diversity of the parties, it chooses to abstain from exercising that jurisdiction under Burford and its progeny, because South Carolina courts have a greater interest in resolving this dispute over the interpretation and application of the county's zoning regulations than does a federal court. Leaving the matter to the state court system will better ensure a “coherent policy” with respect to this issue of “public concern.”

         Defendants argue that, regardless of the zoning issues, they have raised several constitutional counterclaims that should be addressed by a federal court. As discussed above, defendants have brought counterclaims based on County of Charleston's alleged violation of their due ...

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