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Know the Powers of City Planning Boards

​State law empowers municipalities to create a planning commission and two types of planning-focused boards: a board of zoning appeals and a board of architectural review. Each has its own functions, abilities and limitations.

By law, the municipal council cannot perform the functions of any of the required planning boards.

Local Planning Commission
Municipalities engaged in the regulation of land development within their jurisdiction must establish a Planning Commission. When created, this commission is charged with continuous planning efforts for physical, social and economic development in its jurisdiction.

Powers include:

  • Creating and revising a comprehensive plan which must "promote public health, safety, morals, convenience, prosperity, or the general welfare as well as the efficiency and economy" of its territory (SC Code Section 6-29-340). The plan must include elements required by law, and "must be based upon careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of existing conditions and probable future development."
  • Making recommendations to a city or town council on how to implement the plan through ordinances, regulations, policies or procedures, and make recommendations on capital improvement programs and development impact fees.
  • Administering the land development regulations that have been adopted by council by approving or disapproving submitted plans and plats.

Planning commissions cannot grant variances or exceptions to a municipality's zoning ordinance. These functions are reserved exclusively for a second planning board: the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Board of Zoning Appeals
If a zoning ordinance is used as a tool to implement a land use plan, a Board of Zoning Appeals is required.

Powers include:

  • Making decisions on appeals from the administrative decisions of the city or town's zoning administrator.
  • Granting or denying applications for variances from zoning ordinances, or granting or denying applications for special exceptions.
  • Remanding matters to the zoning administrator if the board has not received adequate information for its review.

The board's decisions are subject to appeal only to a circuit court.

Board of Architectural Review
A city can create this board when its zoning ordinance provides protection of districts considered to have architectural value or otherwise have a special and desired character, as well as protection of any significant or natural scenic area.

The scope of this work can vary significantly. For example, the City of Columbia's Design/Development Review Commission reviews work in the city's numerous historic districts, its five urban design overlay districts, and work that occurs at any of more than 160 designated landmarks.

For the purposes of the board of architectural review, the zoning ordinance must name any restrictions that apply to the designated areas. This includes conditions for building, demolishing or altering the appearance of buildings in the areas. The board may then use the powers that the zoning ordinance expressly grants to approve or deny projects, while also operating within the limits stated by ordinance. Clear language in the ordinance explaining powers and limits is critical for the board's operations.

Learn more in the Municipal Association's Comprehensive Planning Guide for Local Governments.