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2011-UP-384 - Morris Communications v. City of Greenville

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Morris Communications Company, LLC, d/b/a Fairway Outdoor Advertising Division, Respondent,

v.

The City of Greenville, South Carolina, Appellant.


Appeal From Greenville County
R. Lawton McIntosh, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2011-UP-384  
Heard February 16, 2011 – Filed August 8, 2011


AFFIRMED


Ronald W. McKinney, of Greenville, for Appellant.

Reid Sherard and Timothy Madden, both of Greenville, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  The City of Greenville (the City) appeals the circuit court's grant of partial summary judgment in favor of Morris Communications Company, LLC, d/b/a Fairway Outdoor Advertising (Fairway), which effectively made void the City's ordinance regarding the amortization of billboards.[1]  We affirm.

FACTS

In 1993, the City passed a billboard amortization ordinance that allowed for amortization of billboards without the payment of compensation to the sign owner.  In 1996, the City repealed this ordinance.  In early 2005, the South Carolina legislature introduced legislation that would prevent local governments from amortizing private billboard properties without compensation to the owner.  On May 9, 2005, the City enacted the ordinance at issue in this litigation.  The ordinance purported to repeal the 1996 ordinance that had repealed the 1993 ordinance, thereby reinstating the right of the City to amortize billboards without compensation.  The ordinance stated the 1993 ordinance had remained in effect from the time of its passage until the passage of the 2005 ordinance. 

The proposed state legislation was ratified but vetoed by Governor Mark Sanford.  The veto was overridden, and the law became effective on February 22, 2006, as the "South Carolina Landowner and Advertising Protection and Property Valuation Act," sections 39-14-10 to -40 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2010) (the Act). 

The Act provides "[a] local governing body may enact or amend an ordinance of general applicability to require the removal of any nonconforming, lawfully erected off-premises outdoor advertising sign only if the ordinance requires the payment of just compensation to the sign owners . . ."  S.C. Code Ann. § 39-14-30(B)(2) (emphasis added).  As enacted, Section 6 of the Act provided:


Time Effective - SECTION 6. This act takes effect upon approval by the Governor. Nothing in this act preempts or otherwise alters, modifies, applies to, or effects relocation or removal of any off-premises outdoor advertising signs pursuant to an ordinance or regulation enacted by a local governing body prior to April 14, 2005. It is the intent of the General Assembly that nothing in this act may be construed to require the payment of monetary compensation for any off-premises outdoor advertising signs relocated or removed pursuant to an ordinance enacted before the effective date of this act unless the ordinance otherwise requires the payment of monetary compensation.

After the passage of the Act, the City attempted to amortize certain of Fairway's billboards without compensation.  Fairway filed a declaratory judgment action against the City to have the ordinance stricken from the City Code.  In the alternative, Fairway requested a permanent injunction and also alleged an inverse condemnation cause of action and unconstitutional takings in violation of the state and federal constitutions.  Fairway filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to the declaratory judgment action.  The City filed a document entitled "Motion for Summary Judgment" as well.  The circuit court granted Fairway's motion finding the plain language of the Act rendered all amortization ordinances illegal and holding the effective date section of the Act related to removals that occurred before the effective date, not ordinances passed prior to that time.  The circuit court further found the City's interpretation of the Act's effective date section would transform the Act into unconstitutional special legislation because it would treat municipalities differently.  The City filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied.  This appeal followed. 

LAW/ANALYSIS

I.  The Act and the Ordinance

The City argues the time effective section of the Act states compensation ordinances enacted prior to the effective date of the legislation are not affected by the Act.  We disagree.

"The issue of interpretation of a statute is a question of law for the court.  [The appellate court] is free to decide questions of law with no particular deference to the lower court."  Jeter v. S.C. Dep't of Transp., 369 S.C. 433, 438, 633 S.E.2d 143, 146 (2006) (citations omitted).  "The determination of legislative intent is a matter of law."  Eagle Container Co., LLC v. Cnty. of Newberry, 379 S.C. 564, 568, 666 S.E.2d 892, 894 (2008) (quoting Charleston Cnty. Parks & Recreation Comm'n v. Somers, 319 S.C. 65, 67, 459 S.E.2d 841, 843 (1995)).  "All rules of statutory construction are subservient to the one that legislative intent must prevail if it can be reasonably discovered in the language used, and that language must be construed in light of the intended purpose of the statute."  McClanahan v. Richland Cnty. Council, 350 S.C. 433, 438, 567 S.E.2d 240, 242 (2002).  The language in a statute should be construed in a way that reflects the statute's intended purpose.  Nelson v. Ozmint, 390 S.C. 432, 436, 702 S.E.2d 369, 371 (2010).  "A statute as a whole must receive practical, reasonable, and fair interpretation consonant with the purpose, design, and policy of lawmakers."  Sloan v. S.C. Bd. of Physical Therapy Exam'rs, 370 S.C. 452, 468, 636 S.E.2d 598, 606 (2006). 

The time effective section of the enacting legislation is ambiguous.  It is unclear whether the removal of signs is prohibited after a certain date or whether the passage of new "no compensation" ordinances is the prohibited action.  Further complicating matters, two dates, April 15, 2005, and the effective date of the legislation, which was ultimately February 22, 2006, are cited.  Because the language used in the second and third sentences of this section is ambiguous, we must attempt to ascertain the legislature's intent and construe any ambiguity in a way that reconciles it with the Act's overall purpose. 

In this case, section (B) of the Act makes clear the legislature disfavors the amortization of billboards without just compensation to the owners.  Interpreting the Act to allow local governments to continue amortizing billboards without just compensation under previously enacted ordinances does not comport with the overall intent of the Act, which is aimed at protecting the property interests of sign owners.  Furthermore, if the time effective section referred to a cutoff date for the passage of no-compensation ordinances, nothing would have prevented all local jurisdictions from hurriedly passing no-compensation ordinances.  Such action would have rendered the Act completely ineffective, and we are charged with construing legislation in a manner that does not lead to an absurd result.  SeeKiriakides v. United Artists Commc'ns, Inc., 312 S.C. 271, 275, 440 S.E.2d 364, 366 (1994) (holding the court should reject a meaning when to accept it would lead to a result so plainly absurd that it could not have been intended by the legislature).  Therefore, we construe the second sentence of the time effective section as banning the removal or relocation of signs prior to April 15, 2005, under a no-compensation ordinance. 

The same principles that lead to our interpretation of the second sentence are applicable to a construction of the last sentence of the time effective section.  Again, to interpret the last sentence to permit the continued existence of no-compensation ordinances would conflict with the overall purpose of the Act.  Consequently, two possible interpretations of the final sentence emerge: (1) it prohibits the removal or relocation of signs after the time effective date of the Act or (2) it simply clarifies for sign owners that the passage of the Act does not entitle them to seek compensation for signs already removed under a previously existing no-compensation ordinance.  In other words, the statute is not retroactive.  The first interpretation is incongruent with our construction of the second sentence in this section finding April 15, 2005, to be the cutoff date for the removal or relocation of signs.  Therefore, the second construction is most reasonable and is in keeping with the overall purpose of the Act.  Local governments cannot continue operating under no-compensation ordinances, and sign owners cannot use the Act to seek compensation for prior amortizations that were accomplished without just compensation.[2]

Because we conclude the time effective section of the Act does not permit the continuing existence of no-compensation ordinances, we find the circuit court did not err in holding the City's ordinance was preempted by the Act.  Furthermore, because we interpret the Act in such a way as to preempt the City's amortization ordinance, we not need address the circuit court's findings regarding special legislation and we need not determine whether the unconventional way in which the ordinance was passed rendered it void.  See Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999) (holding an appellate court need not address remaining issues when the determination of a prior issue is dispositive of the appeal).

II.  Failure to Grant Summary Judgment

The City also urges this court to find the circuit court erred in failing to grant summary judgment in its favor on Fairway's remaining causes of action.  We decline to address this issue. 

The parties disagree to some extent on whether the City's pleading entitled "Motion for Summary Judgment" actually seeks summary judgment as to the other causes of action alleged by Fairway: permanent injunction, inverse condemnation cause of action, and unconstitutional takings in violation of the state and federal constitutions.  However, we need not determine whether the City sought summary judgment on those issues because the denial of those motions would be unappealable.  See Olson v. Faculty House of Carolina, Inc., 354 S.C. 161, 168, 580 S.E.2d 440, 444 (2003) (reaffirming the denial of a motion for summary judgment is unappealable).

For all of the foregoing reasons the order of the circuit court is

AFFIRMED.

FEW, C.J., and SHORT and KONDUROS, JJ., concur.


[1] Amortization of billboards means requiring the removal or relocation of non-conforming billboards within a certain period of time.

[2] Under either interpretation of the last sentence, the City's case fails as the signs at issue were not removed before the effective date of the Act, nor is Fairway seeking compensation for an amortization that was concluded prior to the effective date of the Act.