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Citizens For Quality Rural Living, Inc. v. Greenville County Planning Commission and RMDC, Inc.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

February 27, 2019

Citizens for Quality Rural Living, Inc., Appellant,
v.
Greenville County Planning Commission and RMDC, Inc., Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2017-000170

          Heard October 10, 2018

          Appeal From Greenville County Letitia H. Verdin, Circuit Court Judge.

          Barbara Faith Martzin, of B. Faith Martzin, PC, of Greenville, for Appellant.

          William A. Coates, of Roe Cassidy Coates & Price, PA, of Greenville, for Respondent RMDC, Inc.

          H. Dean Campbell, Jr. and Jeffrey D. Wile, both of Greenville, for Respondent Greenville County Planning Commission.

          GEATHERS, J.

         Appellant Citizens for Quality Rural Living, Inc. challenges the circuit court's order dismissing its declaratory judgment action and its appeal from a decision of Respondent Greenville County Planning Commission (Commission) approving the subdivision proposal of Respondent RMDC, Inc. (Developer). Appellant argues the circuit court erred by concluding that Appellant had no standing to appeal the Commission's decision or to file its declaratory judgment action. We reverse and remand to the circuit court for a determination on the merits of Appellant's issues.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In August 2016, Developer submitted to the Commission an application for preliminary approval of a proposal for a subdivision to be named "Copperleaf" near Woodside Road, South Shirley Road, and McKelvey Road in an unzoned area of Greenville County. This submission followed three previous unsuccessful submissions for the same subdivision.[1] According to the Commission, the August 2016 proposal called for a tract of 82.17 acres to be subdivided into 95 residential lots.

         At the Commission's August 2016 meeting, several of Appellant's members, including those who own property and live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed subdivision, spoke in opposition to the proposal. They expressed concern over traffic hazards and other environmental problems that could result from the subdivision as well as the incompatibility of the subdivision with the surrounding rural community. Developer's engineer and the County's Planning Department staff also addressed the Commission at this meeting. By voice vote, the Commission accepted the recommendation of the Planning Department staff to approve Developer's proposal, and the county's Subdivision Administrator noted this approval in a letter dated August 29, 2016.

         Appellant sought review of the Commission's decision in the circuit court, attaching to its Notice of Appeal a complaint entitled, "Appeal and Request for Declaratory Relief," with exhibits. In the complaint, Appellant set forth its grounds for appeal as well as a separate "Request for Declaratory Relief." Developer filed a motion to dismiss Appellant's complaint on the grounds that Appellant had no standing to appeal the Commission's decision and the complaint failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. In its supporting memorandum, Developer asserted that Section 6-29-1150 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2015) allowed only a property owner whose land is the subject of a commission decision to appeal the decision.[2]

         After conducting a motions hearing, the circuit court issued a Form 4 order stating, "Court grants [Developer's] Motion to Dismiss due to Appellant's lack of standing in this matter." The circuit court denied Appellant's motion for reconsideration pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCRCP, in a Form 4 order as well, giving no reason for the denial. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL[3]

         1. Did Appellant have standing under section 6-29-1150 to appeal the Commission's decision to the circuit court?

         2. Did Appellant have standing under the Declaratory Judgment Act, SC Code Ann. §§ 15-53-10 to -140 (2005), to seek the circuit court's declaration that the Commission had discretionary authority to reject a staff recommendation?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Statutory Interpretation

         "An issue regarding statutory interpretation is a question of law." Lightner v. Hampton Hall Club, Inc., 419 S.C. 357, 363, 798 S.E.2d 555, 558 (2017) (quoting Univ. of S. California v. Moran, 365 S.C. 270, 274, 617 S.E.2d 135, 137 (Ct. App. 2005)). As to questions of law, this court's standard of review is de novo. Fesmire v. Digh, 385 S.C. 296, 302, 683 S.E.2d 803, 807 (Ct. App. 2009).

         Declaratory Judgment

         "The decision to grant a declaratory judgment is a matter [that] rests in the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed absent a clear showing of abuse."[4] Eargle v. Horry Cty., 344 S.C. 449, 453, 545 S.E.2d 276, 279 (2001) (quoting Garris v. Governing Bd. of S.C. Reinsurance Facility, 319 S.C. 388, 390, 461 S.E.2d 819, 820 (1995)). "An abuse of discretion occurs [when] the trial court is controlled by an error of law or [when] the [c]ourt's order is based on factual conclusions without evidentiary support." City of Columbia v. Pic-A-Flick Video, Inc., 340 S.C. 278, 282, 531 S.E.2d 518, 521 (2000).

         LAW/ANALYSIS

         I. Appellate Standing

         Appellant argues it had standing to appeal the Commission's decision to the circuit court under section 6-29-1150(D) because the statute's language does not limit the class of permissible appellants to only property owners. We agree.

         "The right of appeal does not exist in every case[] and can only be claimed under some constitutional or statutory provision conferring such right." Turner v. Joseph Walker Sch. Dist. No. 9, 215 S.C. 472, 476, 56 S.E.2d 243, 244 (1949) (quoting Whipper v. Talbird, 32 S.C. 1, 10 S.E. 578 (1890)). "[N]o appeal is to be allowed from an inferior or special tribunal, except in cases where it is ...


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