In an opinion by Chief Justice Hecht, the Texas Supreme Court has held that the City of Georgetown’s Planning and Zoning Commission did not abuse its discretion when it determined that a developer’s proposed subdivision complied with applicable law.
Josh Schroeder, in His Official Capacity as Chair of the City of Georgetown Planning and Zoning Commission et al. v. Escalera Ranch Owners’ Association, Inc. (No. 20-0855) arose from a suit brought by 150 property owners in Escalera Ranch against the City’s planning and zoning commission. A developer applied to the commission for approval of a preliminary plat for a new 89-home subdivision to be called Patience Ranch. Patience Ranch would lie to the north of Escalera Ranch and utilize the only residential street, Escalera Parkway. Residents expressed concerns that traffic on the Parkway would increase to an unsafe level and impede access by emergency services and asserted that the plat did not conform to the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC). They also argued that the plat did not conform to a requirement of the International Fire Code (IFC), which the City had adopted and which stipulated that two-separate fire-access roads serve the area. The commission staff concluded that the proposed development met the requirements of the UDC for a 95-lot residential subdivision. At a public meeting the City’s Assistant Fire Chief also stated that the new subdivision would meet fire code standards. The commission concluded that given the staff’s recommendation and Fire Chief’s sign-off, it had a ministerial duty to approve the plat as required by statute.
Escalera residents filed suit against the commission members in their official capacities, asserting that the plat was nonconforming and that the commission’s approval constituted a clear abuse of discretion. They sought injunctive relief directing commissioners to rescind their approval. The commissioners filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that they had a ministerial duty to approve a plat that they determined was conforming. They also argued that the residents lacked standing to sue. The trial grant granted the plea and dismissed the suit. On appeal the Amarillo Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the residents had standing and had raised a fact issue of whether the commissioners had clearly abused their discretion. SCOTX granted review.
The Court’s analysis relies heavily on the construction of the UDC and the absence of a statutory mechanism for third parties to seek judicial review of a city’s platting approval process (although it has authorized suits by parties challenging a city’s allegedly improper zoning decisions). Under the UDC, the commission must “consider the plat application, the director’s report, state law, and compliance with the UDC.” Although its interpretation involves some exercise of discretion, the commission’s exercise of discretion is limited to determining whether the plat conforms to the UDC. Once that determination is made, it has a “legal duty” to approve it by statutory mandate, even if the determination is incorrect. But, as Chief Justice Hecht points out, the UDC and state law do not allow third parties to second-guess the commission’s decision just because they think it’s wrong. The “platting process is intended to be an expeditious one that favors approval. . . . Providing [an avenue for a challenge] against the Commissioners in this case would undercut both the Supreme Court’s well-established limitations on ultra vires suits and the Legislature’s plain preference for speedy platting decisions.” The commission did not clearly abuse its discretion. Consequently, the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the residents’ claims.
While we don’t have any empirical evidence regarding the average number of governmental immunity cases SCOTX historically accepts in a term, it certainly feels like this term has seen a lot of them. In view of a political climate that has on many levels promoted hostility towards local governments, perhaps we should not be surprised. But it should be remembered that every lawsuit against a local government, even if it is ultimately dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, costs taxpayer dollars to defend. One of TCJL’s foundational policy objectives is the maintenance of a robust governmental immunity that protects public officials at all levels from litigation based on good-faith exercise of their duties and saves public resources for necessary services. Any erosion of this immunity detracts from that objective and imposes a significant burden on public officials, taxpayers, and the civil justice system.
*George E. Christian, TCJL’s research intern, researched and wrote the substantive parts of this article. The editorial comments are ours.