Francesca Visage | Jun 22, 2022

Court clarifies the interpretation and application of a Municipal Spatial Development Framework

In Choisy-Le-Roi Owners v The Municipality of Stellenbosch the Court addressed the question of how a Municipality’s Spatial Development Framework (‘MSDF’) should be interpreted. The judgment confirms that a municipality may not rely on a draft MSDF in making spatial planning decisions and if it does, it runs the risk of having its decision struck down by a court of law. Thus, only the approved MSDF may be utilised when making spatial planning-related decisions.

Background of the case

Technopark was designated as a special ‘technology or science park development’ zone by the Stellenbosch Municipality in 1996. The original zoning scheme provided for one hotel to be built in the area, but no provision was made for any other residential building.

Choisy-Le-Roi (applicant) is the owner of an underdeveloped property in Technopark and wanted to build a mixed-use building with residential aspects on the property. Choisy-Le-Roi’s application to the Municipal Planning Tribunal of Stellenbosch Municipality to rezone the land was denied. Aggrieved by the decision of the Municipal Planning Tribunal, Choisy-Le-Roi and in terms of the Municipality’s bylaws, appealed to the Executive Mayor, who also dismissed the appeal. It is this decision of the Mayor that Choisy-Le-Roi wanted the court to reverse on review.

Arguments

Choisy-Le-Roi challenged the decision of the Mayor in terms of section 6 of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act. It claimed that the Mayor took irrelevant factors into account and that the decision was not rationally connected to the purpose of the decision, the information before the Mayor or the reasons the Mayor provided. Choisy-Le-Roi claimed that this was the case because the Mayor relied on provisions in the draft MSDF to interpret and apply the approved MSDF.

On the other hand, the Mayor argued that she denied the application because it was contrary to the spirit of Stellenbosch’s approved MSDF. In reaching this conclusion, the Mayor referred to provisions in the draft MSDF that endorsed a potential housing development in Technopark. These provisions did not make it to the approved MSDF. She thus argued that the exclusion of these provisions indicated that the Municipal Council no longer endorsed residential zoning in the Technopark area as it had in the draft MSDF. In short, the Mayor argued that the draft MSDF provides relevant context that is essential to the interpretation of the approved MSDF.

The decision of the Court

The Court started by setting up the legislative framework surrounding the MSDF. Section 26(e) of the Municipal Systems Act demands that municipalities adopt Spatial Development Frameworks as part of their Integrated Development Plans. The Western Cape Land Use Planning Act require that municipalities publish a notice in the Provincial Gazette of the adoption of an MSDF and making it available for public use. Furthermore, the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act prescribe that all municipal decisions relating to land use and development must be guided by an MSDF.  It is thus clear that the MSDF is a very important document.

The Court then considered the factors that are relevant to the interpretation and application of the MSDF. The Court, in Natal Joint Municipal Pension Fund v Endumeni Municipality (‘Edumeni’), provided the principle that, where the meaning of a word or phrase is unclear, the context of the document can be used as a consideration in determining its meaning. However, the Natal case dealt with the interpretation of a contract. There are significant differences in how a written contract and a statutory instrument should be interpreted. Vital to the interpretation of a written contract, is determining the intention of the parties to the contract. This necessitates a greater role for contextual factors in the interpretation of contracts. It also implies that the parties to the contract are on a more equal footing. This is not the case for statutory documents such as an MSDF.

Statutory documents implicate the public. It is thus important that the public is protected with a degree of certainty. It is one of the reasons why rule of law considerations require that the text speaks for itself. Courts have used documents relevant to the drafting of legislation where it may help clarify the meaning of a text. However, in such cases, the Court would only utilise such documents to confirm a finding that the Court would have already made based on other factors. Contextual factors should, therefore, not be the primary basis through which the meaning of a statutory document should be determined.

The Court indicated that, while the MSDF is not a statute, its binding effect on the municipality and the public, demands that its statutory principles should apply to its interpretation. As such, the Court ruled that the Mayor was obliged to only make use of the final MSDF and not rely on a publicly unavailable draft MSDF in making her decision. The Court thus upheld the review application and set aside the Mayor’s decision.

Commentary

The implication of this case is twofold. Firstly, it emphasises the importance and status of municipal policies such as an MSDF. Municipal policies are not legislation. Still, where legislation strengthens policies by making them binding, such policies should be interpreted and applied similarly to legislation. Where a municipality relies on draft policies to make a decision, it runs the risk of having its decisions struck down by a court of law. Secondly, the case highlights the importance of providing clarity to the public. The application of municipal policies must not rely on information, such as the draft of the policy in question, that is not necessarily available to the public. Rather, the policies must be interpreted and applied as-is. This is in line with the principles of legal certainty and the rule of law, which protects the general public in their dealings with a municipality.

 

by Francesca Visage, LLM Student: Dullah Omar Institute

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