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Raynor v. Town of Chapel Hill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 8, 2019

TOWN OF CHAPEL HILL, et al., Defendants.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. In this case, Plaintiffs William J. Raynor, Jr. and Kara R. Raynor assert federal and state constitutional claims against the Town of Chapel Hill and members of its Historic District Commission ("HDC"). For the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that die Motion to Dismiss be granted as to the federal claims, and that the state law claims be remanded to state court.


         This case arises out of Plaintiffs' efforts to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness ("Certificate") with respect to the construction of a residence in a designated historical district in the Town of Chapel Hill. Plaintiffs ultimately obtained the Certificate from the Town of Chapel Hill on September 18, 2017, after alleged denials and delays by the HDC beginning in April 2016. Plaintiffs contend that the 16 months of denials and delays by the HDC violated their federal substantive due process rights and their state constitutional rights. This action was initially filed in state court and was timely removed to this Court. Because this matter is before the Court on a motion to dismiss, the Court sets out here the factual contentions as alleged in the Complaint.

         Plaintiffs allege that that they intended to build a single-family home in the Town's Franklin-Rosemary Historic District on a lot that was empty except for a 294-square-foot "cottage" or "pony barn" structure. (Compl. [Doc. # 2] ¶¶ 24-25.) Because the lot was located in the Historic District, a Certificate of Appropriateness was required in order to erect, alter, restore, move, or demolish any exterior portion of a building or other structure. (Id. ¶¶ ¶ 28.) Plaintiffs allege that under the Town's Land Use Management Ordinances, their intended use was a "use of right" because the area was zoned for residential use. However, Plaintiffs also allege that for lots within the Historic District, additional "use regulations" apply regarding architectural style, general design, general arrangement of a building or other structure, size and scale of the building, type and style of fixtures, and other similar matters. (Id. ¶¶ ¶¶ 26-29). Plaintiffs state that in April 2016, they attended a meeting of the Historic District Commission ("HDC") and participated in a courtesy review of their proposal, receiving generally positive feedback, but with a preference that the 294-square-foot cottage be preserved. In response to the feedback, Plaintiffs modified their plans to include relocating the 294-square-foot cottage to a neighboring property, and Plaintiffs presented this plan for a courtesy review at the June 14, 2016 HDC meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 30-34.) According to the Complaint, the HDC postponed consideration of Plaintiffs' application and "suggested [Plaintiffs' submit] an application to move the existing [cottage] structure ... to be heard simultaneously" with their application for a Certificate of Appropriateness for their proposed residence. (Id. ¶¶ 33-36.) At the next HDC meeting in July 2016, members expressed a desire to maintain the cottage on Plaintiffs' property, denied Plaintiffs' application to relocate the cottage, and continued the hearing on the Certificate for Plaintiffs proposed residence. (Id. ¶¶ 38-43.) Plaintiffs did not appeal the decision. (Id. ¶ 44.) Instead, Plaintiffs revised their application and the matter was presented for consideration at an HDC meeting on September 8, 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 45-48.) At the meeting, Plaintiffs presented an inspection report indicating the deficiencies and structural issues with the cottage, and the HDC was informed that Plaintiffs had offered the cottage to the University of North Carolina as a gift, but the University declined the offer to relocate the structure "because there was not a compelling historical rationale" for it. (Id. ¶¶ 49-51.) Plaintiffs' revised plan kept the structure on the lot, but Plaintiffs also applied to demolish the cottage if that became necessary, with a stipulation that demolition be delayed for 365 days, to September 8, 2017, to allow them to work out an alternative. (Id. ¶¶ 48-51, 57-58.) That request was granted, but consideration of the merits of Plaintiffs' application was again postponed, this time in deference to the request of neighboring property owner who appeared at the meeting. (Id., ¶¶ 52-55.) Plaintiffs allege they attended the next meeting on October 13, 2016, and at that time, despite complying with all applicable ordinances, a neighbor expressed concerns that "the structure proposed was too large for the Lot" QA ¶ 61.) HDC members commented that: "the design did not provide ample setbacks" (Defendant Sweet); the house "was not typical of the neighborhood 'spaciness'" (Defendant Smith); that "the Lot has been subdivided and [that] 'infill' on a legally subdivided lot does not 'retain character'" (Defendant Kyser); and that North Carolina "does not protect adjoining property owners in appeals" and "that the HDC needed to give deference to neighbors" (Defendant Kyser). (Id. ¶¶ 62-65.) Plaintiffs' application for a Certificate was denied by a 6 to 1 vote, and Plaintiffs contend that the reasons given for the denial, i.e., that the house was too large, that the setbacks were insufficient, that the house was "not typical of neighborhood spaciness," and that the proposed infill on a subdivided lot did not retain character, were not factors specifically included in the Town's Land Use Ordinances. However, Plaintiffs did not appeal this denial. (Id. ¶¶ 66, 68.) Instead, on December 12, 2016, Plaintiffs submitted what they identified as a new application for a Certificate of Appropriateness with the Town's Office of Planning and Sustainability, and that application was presented to the HDC for consideration at its January 10, 2017 meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 72-79.) According to the Complaint, although the materials were timely submitted, the HDC again delayed consideration of the application on the stated grounds that the HDC did not have enough time to review the documents. (Id. ¶ 80.)

         Plaintiffs allege that at the next HDC meeting in February 2017, HDC member Defendant Burns acknowledged that prior to joining the HDC he had spoken against Plaintiffs' application, and he recused himself from future votes. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant Burns' wife, Catharine Burns, had also previously spoken against Plaintiffs' application, and that Defendant Burns and Catharine Burns had contemplated making an offer for the lot at the time of the Plaintiffs' purchase. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 81-84.) At the February HDC meeting, Catharine Burns objected to Plaintiffs' new application and testified that the issues surrounding Plaintiffs' previously-rejected application had not been addressed. (Id.¶¶ ¶¶ 91-92.) Plaintiffs allege that they objected to Catharine Burns' testimony but were admonished that such interruptions were improper. (Id. ¶¶ 89-90.) A motion to approve reconsideration of Plaintiffs' application failed 5 to 4, with Defendant Burns recusing himself, and the matter was tabled until the March 2017 meeting. (Id. ¶ 95.)

         At the March 2017 HDC meeting, a motion to reconsider the application was denied on the stated grounds that the new application was not substantially different from the December 12, 2016 application that had been denied. (Id. ¶¶ 99400.) On April 3, 2017, Plaintiffs filed an appeal to the Board of Adjustment. On May 3, 2017, the Board overruled the HDC and remanded the matter with instructions for the HDC to consider the second application. (Id. ¶¶ 102-103.) The HDC considered the new application at its June 13, 2017 meeting, and Plaintiffs allege that they presented evidence that their application was in compliance with the Town's Land Use Ordinances, that their plans were consistent with other houses in the neighborhood, including by height, setback, design of garage, roof shape, square footage, and lot coverage, and no evidence was presented in opposition. (Id. ¶¶ 105-131.) Plaintiffs allege that HDC members expressed a need to "protect the pattern of development as it existed in 1976," that HDC member Sweet referenced his "special knowledge" independent of the evidence presented as to the "size, scale and contributing structure," that HDC member Epting stated his concern about encouraging others to subdivide property that had historically been larger, and that HDC member Rimer stated that "an awful lot of houses . . . look to be awfully close to the back property lines ... so you can't have it both ways." Plaintiffs' application was denied. (Id. ¶¶ 132-38.) According to a June 28, 2017, written decision of the HDC, "the relocation of the driveway and the visibility of the garage was incongruous with the character of the District," and the application was "incompatible with HDC guidelines 'with respect to the openness and airiness of the Lot and 'it[s] particular history over time.'" (14 ¶¶ 142, 144.) The HDC determined that "Plaintiffs failed to prove that the size and scale of the proposed garage was congruous with the District" although Plaintiffs contend that "similar garages have been approved in the District." (Id. ¶¶ ¶ 147.) The HDC also determined that "the absence of a backyard" was incongruous, but Plaintiffs contend that this requirement relied on an old ordinance that had since been superseded, (Id. ¶ 150-51.) Plaintiffs contend that neither the administrative record nor applicable legal standards support the HDC's conclusions. (Id. ¶¶ ¶¶ 142-155.)

         On June 23, 2017, before the HDC issued its opinion, Plaintiffs wrote to the Town requesting that a Certificate be issued on the grounds that "180 days passed without action by the HDC following the December 12, 2016 Filing of the Application," in violation of North Carolina law. The request was denied on July 3, 2017, and Plaintiff appealed this decision and the decision denying their Certificate to the Town's Board of Adjustment. (Id. ¶¶ 140-41, 156-159.) The Board denied the appeal as to the passage of 180 days, but reversed the HDC's decision to deny the Certificate with instructions to the HDC to approve the Certificate. (Id. ¶¶ 160-164.) A written decision was provided to Plaintiffs on August 4, 2017. However, Plaintiffs allege that the regular August meeting of the HDC was cancelled and that Plaintiffs were provided with only 6-hours? notice of a special meeting held on August 28, 2017, regarding HDC's position on the decision of the Board of Adjustment. (Id. ¶¶ 165-169.) At the August 28, 2017 special meeting, the HDC, with Defendant Burns attending, met in closed session and then in open session, and voted to request that the Town consider an appeal of the Board's decision to the Superior Court. Defendant Burns again recused himself from voting, and the HDC represented that Defendant Burns did not participate in the closed session meeting despite being in the same room when the other members met. (Id. ¶¶ ¶¶ 171-182.)

         On September 1, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their own appeal of the Board of Adjustment's Order to state court. (Id. ¶ 187.) Plaintiffs allege that by the time of the next HDC meeting, on September 12, 2017, the period for the Town to appeal the Board of Adjustment's decision had expired, and the Town chose not to appeal. (Id. ¶ 184.) Plaintiffs attended the September 12, 2017 meeting and requested the HDC issue the Certificate based upon the remand from the Board of Adjustment. (Id. ¶¶ 191-194, 198.) According to the Complaint, the minutes of the meeting reflect that the HDC was advised that the 180-day period for consideration of the Certificate would expire on September 18, and the Certificate would be approved administratively at that time. (Id. ¶ 197.) The HDC advised Plaintiffs that a request for information about the legitimacy of the Board of Adjustment's Order had been made to a University of North Carolina School of Government professor and the HDC was awaiting a response. (Id. ¶ 201.) Plaintiffs allege that the professor had already emailed HDC member Rimer on September 11, 2017, the day before the HDC met on September 12, advising that the HDC had no options but to comply with the Board of Adjustment's determination. (Id. ¶¶ 201-203.) Plaintiffs allege that, even with that information, HDC members raised additional questions about signing the Certificate validating the Board of Adjustment's decision, including whether the chair of the HDC could sign the certificate without input from the HDC as a whole and whether the HDC could issue a certificate without a finding of congruity by the HDC or the Board of Adjustment. (Id., ¶¶ 205, 206). Plaintiffs allege that the professor wrote back 'again shortly after the start of the September 12, 2017 meeting that "the HDC has no discretion to do anything other than comply with the BOA order and to issue the COA." (Id. ¶¶ 210-211.) Plaintiffs contend that despite this information, the HDC took no action at the September 12, 2017 meeting, and the Town issued the Certificate on September 18, 2017, on the basis that the HDC had failed to act within a 180-day period as contemplated by North Carolina law. Id. ¶¶ 213-218.) According to Plaintiffs, their application was singled out for disparate treatment based on "illegitimate, political or personal motives." (Id. ¶ 231.)

         Plaintiffs commenced this action specifically alleging claims for violations of their state constitutional rights (Count 1) and their federal substantive due process rights (Count 2). Defendants filed the present Motion to Dismiss, contending that Plaintiffs' constitutional rights were not violated and that, if they were, Defendants are entitled to quasi-judicial or qualified immunity.


         A. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

         A plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) when the complaint does not "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."' Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Thus, a plaintiffs "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," thereby "nudg[ing] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         B. Federal Substantive Due Process Claim Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Plaintiffs allege violation of their federal substantive due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. At the outset, the Court notes that the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has repeatedly stated that "federal courts are not the appropriate forum to challenge local land use determinations." Pulte Home Corp. v. Montgomery Cnty., Md., 909 F.3d 685, 688 (4th Cir. 2018). In this regard, the Fourth Circuit has cautioned that:

land-use decisions are a core function of local government. Few other municipal functions have such an important and direct impact on the daily lives of those who live or work in a community. The formulation and application of land-use policies, therefore, frequently involve heated political battles, which typically pit local residents opposed to development against developers and local merchants supporting it. Further, community input is inescapably an integral element of this system. Subdivision control is an inherendy discretionary system that allows-indeed, sanctions-compromise and negotiation between developers and the planners who represent the community.
Resolving the routine land-use disputes that inevitably and constantly arise among developers, local residents, and municipal officials is simply not the business of the federal courts. . . . Accordingly, federal courts should be extremely reluctant to upset the ...

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