Steel mill challenges city zoning in court
Liberty Steel has gone to court to prevent the city of Georgetown from enforcing a provision of its zoning ordinance that would lead to the closure of its mill.
The city says the company’s filing is premature since its Board of Zoning Appeals is due to hear the same issues next week.
The argument over the fate of the mill comes as the state legislature is considering a budget that includes a provision that would turn over adjacent property owned by the S.C. State Ports Authority to Georgetown County for redevelopment.
At issue is the “redevelopment district” zoning, known as REDD, that the city adopted for the steel mill property in 2017. The ordinance was intended to move heavy industry away from the city’s waterfront and residential neighborhoods. At the time, the mill was closed.
Liberty bought the property and resumed operations in January 2018. It told the city the following year that it planned to close parts of the mill as part of a “multi-year improvement process” and sought to have the property rezoned to “heavy industry.” Liberty later withdrew that request.
The city did amend the REDD so that if the mill was closed due to a natural disaster or other unforeseen event, that closure would not trigger the provision of the ordinance that if the mill closed for more than 365 days in a two-year period it would lose its ability to operate as a non-conforming use.
“COVID-19 thwarted and, in fact, prevented Liberty’s plans for capital improvements,” Howard Law, board secretary for Liberty Steel Holdings USA, said in a court filing this week. The company considered that an unforeseen circumstance, known in the ordinance as “force majeure.”
Liberty closed the mill, but said it planned to resume operation by Feb. 1, 2021. If not, it acknowledged the clock would start running on the abandonment provision in the zoning ordinance. By January 2022, the mill had still not reopened.
City Administrator Sandra Yúdice wrote the company CEO, Sanjeev Gupta, to say she had asked the city zoning administrator to determine whether the mill had lost its non-conforming status.
“I want to be candid,” Yúdice said. “I expect the Zoning Administrator may determine that Liberty Steel has lost its legal nonconforming use status under the REDD zoning district for its manufacturing uses because the melt shop has been in non-production status in excess of 1,090 days.”
The zoning administrator, Chris Inglese, made that determination in February. The company filed an appeal with the Board of Zoning Appeals. That board, which is created by state law, most often hears requests for variances to the zoning ordinance for items such as building setbacks.
Liberty Steel argues that it relied on assurances from Yúdice that the clock wouldn’t start on the abandonment of the non-conforming use until February 2021. Yúdice told the company that was the job of the zoning administrator, according to court documents.
Liberty argues that even if they had been made aware of that, Inglese couldn’t function as the zoning administrator in February 2022 because he had already taken another job as administrator of Newberry County. Yúdice said that Inglese was providing contract services to the city.
Liberty asked the court this week to issue a temporary restraining order to enjoin the city from taking any action to enforce the REDD until its complaint can be heard in court. That includes enjoining the Board of Zoning Appeals from hearing Liberty’s appeal on April 6.
There are 60 people currently at work in the rolling mill, using steel billets brought in from a Liberty mill in Illinois. Those jobs and others that are due to be added are at risk, the company says.
The city argued against the company’s request, saying it amounts to “pre-emptive judicial review.”
The Board of Zoning Appeals could find in Liberty’s favor, which would render Liberty’s court action moot, the city said.