Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 8, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in NC Dismisses Due Process and Equal Protection Claims Following Denial of Certificate of Appropriateness to Demolish Cottage

This post was authored by Touro Law student Thomas Brown ‘20

Plaintiffs William and Kara Raynor owned a parcel of land in a historic district in Chapel Hill containing a small cottage that they wished to demolish and replace with a new single-family home. In order to do this they needed to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commission (HDC).

After a series of denials and changes to their application, the Raynors appealed to the town Board of Adjustment, which ordered that the HDC accept the application. However, the HDC continued to delay and avoid obeying the Board’s order. The Raynors sued the Town and the HDC in state court under claims of federal substantive due process, procedural due process, equal protection and state constitutional claims. The defendants timely removed to the Middle District of North Carolina and made a motion to dismiss under quasi-judicial and qualified immunity.

Regarding substantive due process, the court acknowledged the plaintiffs’ allegations that the Commission “caus[ed] Plaintiffs to engage in numerous and inconsistent redesigns, rais[ed] new objections throughout the process with differing reasons, conduct[ed] undisclosed private meetings, [had] conflicts or animus toward Plaintiffs, seat[ed] some members who were not qualified to serve by virtue of interest, experience or education, and bas[ed] its decisions on considerations not provided for in the Town’s Land Use Ordinances.” However, the court decided that those actions were not outside the “broad limits” of government action and were within the state’s traditional regulatory powers. They did not “shock the conscience” and could be rectified by state remedies.

Concerning the equal protection claim, the court again emphasized the local nature of land use decisions. Plaintiffs alleged that they had been treated differently from other residents with home designs similar to the one they proposed, but the court stated that “Where rational distinctions are reasonably conceivable, ‘even if they were not the real reasons for treating [Plaintiffs] differently[,] … that is the end of our inquiry.’”

After dismissing the federal due process and equal protection claims, the court remanded the state constitutional claims to the state court.

Regarding defendants’ claims of quasi-judicial and qualified immunity, the court said that “These are potentially-applicable defenses that would require further analysis and consideration,” but the court did not have to reach them after the failure of the federal claims.The court concluded by stating that “‘[t]his case is a garden-variety zoning dispute recast in constitutional terms’” (quoting Siena Corp. v. Mayor and City Council of Rockville, Md., 873 F.3d 456, 466) and granted defendants’ motion to dismiss the federal claims.

Raynor v. Town of Chapel Hill, 2019 WL 503443 (M.D.N.C. Feb. 8, 2019).

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