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Trio Wins Zoning Appeal for Church Facility

Stuart Andrews, Jay Thompson, and Norah Rogers successfully represented Elmwood Avenue Church of God in Columbia in a pro bono appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court of Common Pleas of a City of Columbia Board of Zoning Appeals denial of a request for a Special Exception. The church sought an exception that would allow it to operate a transitional living facility to serve adult male clients who have successfully completed alcohol or other drug abuse treatment, are transitioning back to self-sufficiency and employment, and do not otherwise have access to a safe and drug-free environment that ensures effective treatment and recovery.

The facility site is two lots down from the church in an area zoned for office, institutional, and certain types of residential uses in downtown Columbia. Residential care facilities with more than nine occupants require a Special Exception. In its meeting on the request, the zoning board questioned whether the exception would be good for the “public welfare” and denied the request based on the ostensible grounds of pedestrian safety.

In reversing the zoning board, the circuit court found that the board actually made no findings of fact that would support its conclusion that the safety of pedestrians would be jeopardized by the establishment of the treatment center. Moreover, the court found that the board’s reliance on the nebulous concept of “public welfare” was unsupported by the special exception ordinance. Relying on a ruling of the SC Supreme Court in another case involving the Columbia Board of Zoning Appeals, the circuit court found that the zoning board’s decision “was based upon the fears of neighboring residents who did not want ‘those type of people’ in their neighborhood,” and concluded that the ordinance does not provide a basis for the board’s action.

“The pro bono representation was a tremendous blessing to us, to say the least,” Senior Pastor Charles Ledford wrote the team afterward. “However, the overall representation of our case was the most exhaustive and professional preparation and presentation we could have ever hoped for. I know there had to be many hours devoted to this case. … Thank you seems like such a small way to express our appreciation.”