The plaintiff-church’s 1997 development permit said, “All permits expire two (2) years from the date of approval unless substantial improvement has occurred”. Although the church made “substantial improvement” by completing “Phase I” of its planned development—a sanctuary and parking lot—that year, the permit expired before the church sought to begin work on “Phase II,” a fellowship hall, in 2006.
We reverse the master-in-equity’s reversal of the defendant-county’s decisions (1) requiring the church to apply for a new development permit, (2) denying the church’s subsequent application for the permit to construct a fellowship hall, and (3) denying the church’s request for a zoning variance.
In both the narrative included as part of the church’s initial development application and its 2007 application, the church said Phase I included the sanctuary and a parking lot; Phase II consisted of an 11,250 square foot fellowship hall. At a hearing before the Beaufort County Planning Commission, the church’s pastor acknowledged the fellowship hall was part of the second phase of the project.
On its face, the church’s 1997 development permit stated it expired two years from the approval date “unless substantial improvement has occurred.” Although the church made improvements to the site, these improvements were directed toward the construction of Phase I—the sanctuary and parking area.
Additionally, the church’s building permit covered only the sanctuary, and the church’s pastor explained the church postponed building the fellowship hall for financial reasons. Further, the record reveals no evidence that the church sought to extend the 1997 development permit. Therefore, the master-in-equity erred in finding the 1997 development permit authorized the church to construct a fellowship hall some 10 years later.
New Permit Application
Between the issuance of the church’s original development permit and its application for a new one, the county enacted ordinances which restricted land use in accident potential zones surrounding Beaufort’s Marine Corps Air Station. When the church applied for the new development permit, the ordinances allowed “non-conforming places of assembly and worship [to expand] by up to 15 percent … provided that the expansion does not increase the occupant load of the building.” Beaufort County, S.C., Code of Ordinances, Appendix A1 § 7(A)(6) (2006).
The church asserted that its fellowship hall would not increase occupant load because the sanctuary and fellowship hall would not be used at the same time. However, the fire marshal explained that “the occupant load is defined in the fire code as the maximum number of people allowed in a building” and that the occupant load for a sanctuary is separate from that for a fellowship hall where there are two separate buildings. The fire marshal testified the current occupant load for the church’s site was 329 for the sanctuary. The occupant load for the church’s fellowship hall could range from 533 to 1,600.
The fellowship hall’s construction would at least double the occupant load. Therefore, we reverse the master-in-equity and reinstate the Planning Commission’s denial of the church’s permit application.
Because of the risks inherent to the Airport Overlay District, the ordinances restrict property uses and building expansions therein to limit the potential number of people at risk should an accident occur. The church was classified as an APZ-2 area, meaning it possessed a “measurable potential for accidents.”
Constrained by our standard of review, we cannot disregard the evidence supporting the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals’ finding that allowing the church to more than double its potential occupant load would “adversely affect … the public good” and be inharmonious with the purposes and intent of the county’s legislation addressing the Airport Overlay District. Accordingly, we find the master-in-equity erred in reversing the Zoning Board’s denial of the church’s variance request.
Grays Hill Baptist Church v. Beaufort County (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-045-19, 14 pp.) (Stephanie McDonald, J.) Appealed from Beaufort County (Marvin Dukes, Master-in-Equity) Mary Bass Lohr, David Wunder, and Lee Ellis Berlinsky for appellants; H. Fred Kuhn for respondent. S.C. App.