Columbia hires Rock HIll lawyer to fight city approvals of alcohol sales

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 22, 2013 

Columbia City Council has hired a specialized lawyer to intercede in zoning cases that deal with alcohol sales, sometime siding against the city board that authorized the sale.

A municipality hiring lawyers to fight decisions by its own administrative offices appears to be almost unheard of in South Carolina.

“No one in our office is aware of a precedent,” said Scott Slatton, field director for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which represents the state’s 270 towns and cities. “But surely, it has happened in the past.”

The move is part of an effort by City Council to widen Columbia’s zoning law for “special exceptions” so that the Board of Zoning Appeals may consider the impact of businesses, including those that sell alcohol, on neighborhoods, said Krista Hampton, Columbia’s director of planning and development services. Council is likely to vote in September to codify the change, she said.

Hampton, a 16-year veteran of city government, said she believes there has been one other example in the Capital City prior to the two recent cases for which council hired a Rock Hill attorney to oppose efforts to open liquor stores in residential areas.

“It’s uncommon, but not unheard of,” Hampton said, adding that she could not recall the earlier case.

The attorney hired by council is land-use and municipal-law specialist Chaplin Spencer of Rock Hill’s Spencer & Spencer law firm. He said he is being paid an hourly rate of $225.

Spencer said council wants to “rein in” special exceptions for businesses that sell alcohol.

He agrees with Hampton that retaining private lawyers to fight actions of its own boards is “not common.” But with his firm’s 100-plus years of service as Rock Hill’s city attorneys, Spencer said, “I have definitely seen it before.”

So far in Columbia, he has represented council in persuading the city zoning appeals board earlier this month to reject one store. He also is taking to court a board decision in April to allow another store to sell liquor.

The earliest of the cases involves One Love Food Mart, a store on the 3900 block of Beltline Boulevard, where the convenience store owners wanted to open an adjoining liquor store. One Love received an exception in April, allowing the sale of liquor. Spencer is appealing that case to court on behalf of City Council, Hampton said.

In June, Spencer argued against authorization for Seven Days Food Mart, in the 5000 block of Fairfield Road, to add a liquor store. The appeals board denied the store owner a special exception, and the owners have about a month left to decide whether to take the issue to court.

Council seemed ready this spring to use public money to hire a private lawyer to represent a downtown neighborhood in a case in which the board approved the sale of beer and wine at a convenience store in the 2100 block of Main Street, near Elmwood Avenue.

“I would be more than comfortable in hiring counsel on behalf of the neighborhood association,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said during an April 30 council meeting after Cottontown neighborhood president Ellen Cooper asked for public legal representation at an Administrative Law Court hearing. No council member at the meeting objected.

Main’s Best, near Alcorn Middle School, had been granted permission from the zoning appeals board to sell beer and wine for off-premises consumption.

The city did not have time to hire a lawyer for the residents and still meet the court’s timetable for a hearing in that case, scheduled for eight days after Cooper’s request, Hampton said.

Cooper argued the case herself, telling council, “I’m going to go up there and play the little old lady role.”

Judge Tripp Anderson sided with the neighborhood, whose residents said there are four other beer and wine retailers within a block of Main’s Best. Anderson overturned the city’s board, ruling the liquor store would have a detrimental effect on the surrounding community.

City attorney Ken Gaines balked at Cooper’s request. Columbia could face exposure by weakening its protection from liability under the state Tort Claims Act, Gaines advised council. He said he would take a closer look at applicable law.

Slatton, with the municipal association, said it is common for cities to hire private attorneys who have expertise in specific areas of the law. But hiring them instead of in-house lawyers to oppose actions of their own governments is rare.

“The city attorney would have a conflict because he can’t litigate against himself,” Slatton said, referring to a city attorney’s role of advocating for the city that employs him.

Told of what Columbia is doing in alcohol cases, Slatton said, “I’ve never heard of it before. Interesting. Interesting.”

Under city zoning-appeals law, anyone with a “substantial interest” of any “officer or bureau” of city government has standing to file an appeal in court. City Council is an officer of city government, municipal officials said.

Another private attorney hired by the city, Danny Crowe, will help rewrite the special exception provisions, Hampton said. The goal is to broaden the interpretation of how zoning changes can affect a neighborhood.

“It is far too narrow,” she said of the current standard.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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