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Comprehensive Planning Act dissected

In 1924, the General Assembly granted local governments the authority to undertake planning and zoning to manage the growth and development of their communities. Local governments are not mandated to perform these duties. Each municipality must decide whether to exercise its planning authority. However, if local officials want to enact zoning regulations, they must also implement a planning program. 

All municipal planning and zoning must conform with the 1994 state Comprehensive Planning Act (SC Code Title 6, Chapter 29). The highlights of the Planning Act are outlined below.

Article 1:  Local planning commission
The local planning commission acts as an advisory body to council. Its main responsibility is to develop, recommend to council and implement the municipality's comprehensive plan.

Local elected officials have the responsibility to adopt the ordinance creating the commission and appoint its members. State law does not set eligibility requirements for being a planning commissioner, but local councils can set local requirements. Because of the prohibition against dual office holding, neither the mayor nor councilmembers can sit on the planning commission.

Council should not be involved in the day-to-day workings of the commission. Instead, the elected officials should establish and clearly communicate to the commission their collective vision for land use and long-term growth, leaving the task of developing recommendations and tools to achieve this vision to the commission.

Article 3: Comprehensive plan
The comprehensive plan gives planning commissioners, municipal officials and residents the opportunity to map out their community's future. For each of the nine elements defined by state law, commissioners inventory existing conditions, provide a statement of needs and goals, and offer implementation strategies and time frames. (See related article defining the nine elements on page 12)

The commission presents its final plan to council for consideration in the form of a resolution. The council has the right to accept or modify the recommended plan or return it to the commission for additional work. After the comprehensive plan has council's support, council must conduct a public hearing and adopt the plan by ordinance.

Planning experts caution elected officials not to wait to share their vision for the community until the commission presents the comprehensive plan for adoption. While developing the comprehensive plan, the planning commission should give council and the public opportunities to participate in the process.

After council adopts the comprehensive plan, the commission must re-evaluate the plan every five years and update it every 10 years to ensure it continues to accurately reflect the community's values.

Article 5: Zoning
Before adopting a zoning ordinance, council must adopt the land use element of the comprehensive plan. The land use element considers existing and future land use.
The zoning ordinance consists of two parts: the text and a map. The text defines land uses (what can be done), and the map shows specifically where each land use can take place.

The planning commission has the responsibility to recommend the zoning ordinance to council. Similar to the comprehensive plan process, council may accept, reject or modify the zoning recommendations. Council must hold a public hearing then adopt zoning regulations by ordinance.

In addition to its responsibility of adopting the zoning ordinance, council must appoint members to the board of zoning appeals and the board of architectural review, then designate a zoning administrator.

The board of zoning appeals has the authority to make final administrative decisions for the local government concerning the zoning ordinance. Board decisions can be appealed to the circuit court.

As with the planning commission, council should not be involved in the day-to-day administration of the zoning ordinance. Also, the planning commission has no authority to administer the zoning ordinance.

Article 7: Land development regulations
Using land development regulations, officials set standards of development such as whether the development have sidewalks, gutters, etc.

Land development regulations control site design, street layout, delivery of utility service and other matters related to the development or redevelopment of land. The planning commission has the responsibility to propose land development regulations to council.

After a public hearing and adoption by ordinance, either staff or the planning commission administers the regulations. Before adopting land development regulations, council must adopt the community facilities element of the comprehensive plan.

Article 7 also addresses council's responsibility for considering requests for bond approval and release and for approving or denying third-party mediation agreements.

Article 9: Education requirements
State law requires members of the planning commission, board of zoning appeals and board of architectural review to attend six hours of orientation training within their first year of service. Staff working directly or indirectly with these officials also must take the mandatory training. The law also requires these individuals to receive three hours of continuing education each year. (See Frequently Asked Questions on this page 13 for more information.)

Before appointing individuals to these boards and commission, municipal officials should inform candidates of the education requirement. The consequence for not attending the mandatory training is severe. An appointed official can be removed from office, and a professional employee can be suspended or dismissed. Also, board and commission members who don't get the required training put the city at risk of a lawsuit if their decisions are challenged. Local rules can require more training than state law requires.

Article 11: Vested rights
A "vested right" means a property owner has a right or entitlement to use his property in a certain way or to complete development of a property despite a zoning change that otherwise would prohibit such use or development. Local officials must establish a point in time in the zoning or land development plan approval process, prior to issuing a building permit, at which time the property owner becomes vested.

Article 13: Federal defense facilities
Local officials and military installation personnel must coordinate on land use matters for properties adjacent to the military installation. Article 13 gives the military a formal voice in local planning and zoning decisions. Its intent is to avoid incompatible land use activities that would negatively affect the mission of the military installation.

This article is intended to give a high-level overview of the state Comprehensive Planning Act. Refer to the Association's "Comprehensive Planning Guide for Local Governments" for more information. This topic is also presented as part of the Municipal Elected Officials Institute of Government.