P&Z members immune from ultra vires actions from third parties in plat approval/denial proceedings

Josh Schroeder, et al. V Escalera Ranch Owners’ Association, Inc., No. 20-0855 (Tex. June 3, 2022)

In this case, the Texas Supreme Court held individuals on the planning and zoning commission were entitled to immunity from ultra vires claims brought by third parties challenging a plat approval. 

Escalera Ranch is a subdivision within the City of Georgetown’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. A developer applied for a preliminary plat. The subdivision’s home owners association (Association)  opposed the application. They asserted that the plat did not conform to the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC) or adopted fire code. They claimed that under the UDC, streets like Escalera Parkway are expected to carry no more than 800 vehicles per day and serve a maximum of 80 dwelling units.  After analysis, Commission staff reported that “[t]he proposed Preliminary Plat meets all of the requirements of the [UDC]…” and the fire marshal asserted it would meet the fire code. The Commission approved the plat, asserting it had a ministerial duty to approve the plat. The Association sued for mandamus asserting the act was ultra vires and to resend the plat. The Commission filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted at the trial court. The court of appeals reversed asserting a fact question existed and the Commission individuals appealed. 

“[P]lat approval is a discretionary function that only a governmental unit can perform.” But once the relevant governmental unit determines that a plat conforms to applicable regulations, it has a ministerial duty to approve that plat. The Commission made such a determination in this case.  Mandamus seeking to compel action by a public official “falls within the ultra vires rationale.”  The Local Government Code does not create a ministerial duty to deny a nonconforming plat. To the contrary, recordable plats that are not acted upon within 30 days must be approved, even without a determination of conformity. The Commission exercises discretion in determining ordinance conformity. So, the Court analyzed the assertion under an abuse of discretion standard.  The Commission’s conformity determination is a discretionary one that necessarily involves “interpret[ing] and constru[ing] . . . applicable ordinances”. While the UDC limits the discretion of what the Commission may consider, it does not otherwise restrict the Commission’s exercise of its discretion to determine conformity.  The Legislature created a ministerial duty to approve a conforming plat, with no reciprocal duty to deny a nonconforming one. If a municipal planning and zoning commission wants to deny a plat for nonconformance, it has only thirty days to do so. After that, the plat is generally approved—even if nonconforming.  The Legislature has not created a mechanism for third parties to seek judicial review of a municipality’s platting approval.  As a result, the individual members are immune from any ultra vires claim brought by the Association. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Heck.