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Understanding Planning Board Authority

State law empowers municipalities to create both a planning commission as well as two types of planning-focused boards: a board of zoning appeals and a board of architectural review. Each of these has unique functions, abilities and limitations, explained in the SC Local Government Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act, found in the SC Code of Laws Title 6, Chapter 29.

Each of the boards must operate with a meaningful degree of separation from city or town councilmembers. South Carolina Code Section 8-13-740 (A)(5) provides that municipal public officials and public employees may not represent a person before any component of that municipality for which the public official or public employee has official responsibility. Advisory opinions issued by the SC State Ethics Commission have made clear that the authority to appoint is an official responsibility. Therefore, councilmembers and municipal staff generally may not represent another person in planning commission, board of zoning appeals, or board of architectural review matters. In 2006, the SC State Ethics Commission's Advisory held that this prohibition extended to a "city council member's firm." In response to that advisory opinion, the General Assembly amended the law to provide that only the councilmember herself was barred from representing another person, not the entire firm for which she worked.

Local Planning Commission
Municipalities that regulate land development must establish a planning commission. The 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 specific elements named in the law. It must also "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 comprehensive plan through ordinances, regulations, policies or procedures. Powers also include making 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
A municipality that adopts a zoning ordinance may create a board to be known as the board of zoning appeals. The purpose of this board is to serve as an administrative mechanism to enforce the zoning ordinance.

Powers include:

  • Making decisions on appeals that arise from the administrative decisions of the city's 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
Municipalities can create these boards when their zoning ordinances make specific provisions for the protection of historic and architecturally valuable neighborhoods or significant or natural scenic areas.

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.

Education requirements
Since 2003, the SC Comprehensive Planning Act has required planning and zoning officials to take both orientation and continuing education courses. Failing to do this can cause appointed officials to be removed from office, and professional employees to be suspended or removed from their positions.

Full information on approved training can be found through the website of the SC Planning Education Advisory Committee. The Municipal Association of South Carolina and South Carolina Association of Counties offer the only state-approved resources for orientation training. Learn more about the resources.

Find information on a large variety of planning and zoning topics in the Municipal Association's Comprehensive Planning Guide for Local Governments.