SC Supreme Court deals with Rock Hill stormwater issue

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Justice Few declares piping storm water under a house is “wrong”

I love a case where a separate opinion (usually a dissent) cuts to the chase and explains in a few words a multiple-page quagmire.  That’s what we have in Ray v. City of Rock Hill*, a case decided on August 4 by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Lucille Ray sued the City of Rock Hill for inverse condemnation, claiming her property was taken as a result of stormwater flowing through pipes under City streets into a terra cotta pipe that runs behind her property. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the City, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the City engaged in an affirmative, positive, aggressive act sufficient to support the inverse condemnation claim. The Supreme Court modified and affirmed that decision, remanding the case for a determination on that issue.

The facts are particularly interesting for dirt lawyers. Ray purchased her house on College Avenue in 1985. Before the house was built in the 1920s, someone—there is no record as to who—installed a 24-inch underground terra cotta pipe under the property. The property and the pipe are located at the topographical low point of a 29-acre watershed. Three stormwater pipes installed and owned by the City collect stormwater and transport it under various streets in the neighborhood. Stormwater runs through the pipe to a catch basin directly in front of Ray’s house. When the water reaches the catch basin, it is channeled under Ray’s house to the back of her property. The pipe has been channeling stormwater in this fashion for roughly 100 years although the record reflects no evidence of an easement.

You won’t be shocked that Ray’s property had a history of sinking and settling. In 1992, Ray saw her gardener fall waist-deep into a sinkhole. The house’s roof was subject to bending and movement. The steps on the front porch sank. In 2008, Ray contacted the City and was told about the pipe running under those steps. (This exchange supported the City’s claim that the statute of limitations had run on a damages claim.)

In 2012, Ray brought this action seeking inverse condemnation and trespass. Other relief was sought and the South Carolina Department of Transportation was added as a defendant, but those issues are not relevant to this appeal. Shortly after Ray brought the suit, the City began maintenance work on a sewer line beneath College avenue.

To get to the sewer line, the City had to dig up part of College Avenue in front of the property and to sever three stormwater pipes from the catch basin. The basis of the inverse condemnation claim is that the City’s reconnection of the pipes to the catch basin was an affirmative, positive, aggressive act. That issue was returned to the circuit court for determination.

Justice Few’s separate opinion (not categorized as a concurrence or a dissent) is cogent. He wrote to make two points. First, the City should not be piping stormwater under Ray’s house! It is wrong, he said, and he doesn’t care who built the pipe or whose fault it is that the house is sinking because of the water. “The City should do the right thing and fix the problem.”

Justice Few’s second point is that all wrongs are not subject to redress in our civil courts. To the extent Ray’s inverse condemnation theory is valid, he said, the taking occurred many years ago, either when the pipes were installed or when the deterioration of the pipes began to harm the property. He said it makes no difference that the pipes were reconnected in 2012. The effect of that act was to continue to run storm water under property Ray alleges had already been taken.

Justice Few concluded that there is simply no right of action available under an inverse condemnation theory and that the circuit court correctly dismissed that claim

I look forward to what happens next!

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28045, August 4, 2021

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