Originally created 01/19/00

Referendum zoning now against law



EDGEFIELD, S.C. -- Residents who wanted a referendum to settle zoning issues in Edgefield County can no longer count on one.

The state Supreme Court ruled Monday that zoning by referendum is illegal in South Carolina and could lead to arbitrary, patchwork zoning decisions.

The ruling came after Mount Pleasant residents asked the town council in 1997 to hold a referendum in an attempt to reverse a local zoning decision for a commercial tract. A circuit judge blocked the vote, and the Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

While the question is "novel," zoning by referendum is illegal, concluded Associate Justice John Henry Waller Jr., who wrote the court's unanimous decision.

"Such a system ultimately could nullify a carefully established zoning system or master plan developed after debate among many interested persons and entities, resulting in arbitrary decisions and patchwork zoning with little rhyme or reason," the opinion said.

G. Dana Sinkler, an attorney for the developer, said the company had argued there is nothing in the state code under planning and zoning allowing such a referendum.

"The court went further than that to our gratification and said the referendum is not allowed under any of our codes," the attorney said. "This pretty well ends referenda in zoning matters."

The decision comes as Edgefield County Council is trying to decide whether large sections of the county should be zoned. The council's first work session on the zoning matter was held Tuesday.

"This court decision certainly puts to rest the referendum issue and makes it clear that the decision belongs to council," County Administrator Wayne Adams said.

In an effort to prevent zoning in their community, Concerned Citizens of Edgefield County -- a vocal group of zoning opponents -- say they still plan to file a petition to stop the council from making it a law and to put the decision to a referendum.

"This case is a perfect example of what we're concerned about," group member Bill White said. "They're taking the power out of the people's hands, and the government is dictating the use of private property. The people of Mount Pleasant now have someone sitting up on the Supreme Court, ruling on a local decision."

In their decision, Supreme Court justices cited two reasons they thought the state Legislature never intended to allow zoning by referendum.

First, they said, the detailed zoning procedures in one section of the state law and the "relatively free-ranging" process for initiatives and referendums were "incompatible and hopelessly inconsistent."

"Second, allowing zoning by initiative and referendum potentially would nullify zoning and land use rules developed after extensive debate among a variety of interested persons," the court said in its ruling.

There is plenty of opportunity for residents to get involved in zoning decisions while projects are before zoning boards and being reviewed by town councils, Mr. Sinkler said.

"I think the General Assembly and the Supreme Court realize that effective planning requires cooperation between elected leaders and their constituents," Mr. Adams said. "That doesn't happen when you just check a box in the voting booth."

Some residents don't want the ordinance.

"We're trying to stop the ordinance before it goes into effect," Bernadette Hudson said. "In my opinion, we're different than Mount Pleasant because we haven't adopted a zoning plan yet."

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.