Court upholds Northside parking rules

Apr. 06, 2014 @ 11:31 PM

N.C. Court of Appeals judges say Chapel Hill officials have the right to ticket Northside landlords who allow tenants to park more than four cars in front of a rental house.

The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel rejected landlord Mark Patmore’s request for an injunction against enforcement of the 2012 ordinance against property owners.

Patmore and his lawyer, Nick Herman, argued the ordinance is unfair because landlords don’t have any ability to control the parking practices of their tenants.

But Judge Sanford Steelman, writing for the panel, said they undermined their case by showing a trial judge leasing contracts that include “a number of mechanisms” for dealing with uncooperative tenants, including eviction.

Steelman and his colleagues – Judges Wanda McGee and Sam Ervin IV – agreed the ordinance is a logical and properly grounded attack by town officials on the issue of overcrowded rental properties in Northside.

The town allows no more than four unrelated people to live in a house in the historically black neighborhood, which is just north of Chapel Hill’s downtown.

But the four-person occupancy limit is widely flouted, as students from nearby UNC are willing to pay premium rents for rental housing within walking distance to campus.

The occupancy limit is also hard to enforce, a key factor in the Town Council’s decision to restrict parking as a proxy for it.

In their lawsuit, Patmore and Herman stopped short of challenging the rationale for the ordinance, a tactical move that clearly hurt their case with the appeals panel.

They in essence conceded that “over-occupancy leads to other problems,” and that “decreasing the over-occupancy of rental properties is a valid goal of a zoning ordinance,” Steelman said.

Town officials argued that it’s easier in zoning cases to find and deal with the owner of a property than the occupant, if occupant and owner aren’t one in the same.

Steelman, McGee and Ervin agreed, saying “the increased effectiveness of this enforcement mechanism is rationally related to the goal of decreasing over-occupancy.”

The judges also rejected Patmore’s claim that state law only allows cities and towns to regulate parking on public property.

They noted the N.C. General Assembly authorizes local governments to zone property to “prevent the overcrowding of land” and the “undue concentration of population,” and to “lessen congestion in the streets.”

Given that, “there is no basis for assuming” legislators wanted a separate law for parking “to diminish a town’s authority to adopt … zoning regulations that deal with population density or over-occupancy of rental homes,” they said.

Finally, the judges said a N.C. Supreme Court decision in 2012 on local-government zoning powers wasn’t applicable, contrary to the arguments from Patmore and Herman, to the situation in Chapel Hill.

The Supreme Court ruling tossed out a county’s “adequate public facilities ordinance” that sought to tie development approvals to the pace of school construction, deeming the county to have exceeded its powers.

But the decision didn’t help Patmore because the Supreme Court said it didn’t think the facilities ordinance was really a zoning rule. It thus “did not address a local government’s authority to enact a bona fide zoning ordinance,” Steelman said.

The ruling upheld a lower-court ruling in the town’s favor from visiting Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith.

The appellate panel was bipartisan: Steelman is a Republican, McGee and Ervin are Democrats.

Patmore can appeal the panel’s decision to the state Supreme Court, but would do so without assurance the justices will take the case.

By law, the high court takes appeals of divided Court of Appeals panel ruling automatically. The justices can and most often do deny further review of unanimous panel rulings.