Center has kept out landfills and fought for safer water. Now its days may be numbered.

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, left, chants among other protestors outside The Center for Leadership Development before a committee meeting deciding the center's future on Aug. 1, 2017, in Chapel Hill.
Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, left, chants among other protestors outside The Center for Leadership Development before a committee meeting deciding the center's future on Aug. 1, 2017, in Chapel Hill.

In the small Brunswick County community of Supply, a black neighborhood known as Royal Oak had just about every potential pollution source in its midst: a landfill, a waste transfer station, a sewage treatment facility, an animal shelter, a hog farm.

When Brunswick County rezoned nearby land in order to expand the landfill, the residents – who had no public water and sewer service – had had enough. The Royal Oak Concerned Citizens Association sued the county in 2011 with the help of a private law firm and the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

The legal claim said the Royal Oak residents were “ ‘hostages’ to an imperiled and contaminated water supply and mounting environmental hazards, with no end in sight. They are ignored as a community in their request for basic services, yet serve as the priority location for virtually every foreseeable environmental hazard in the county.”

Three years later, the case was settled. Not only had the county agreed not to expand the landfill, it decided to build a school on the property instead.

The Brunswick case, fought 160 miles southeast of Chapel Hill, is considered one of the biggest victories of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which is affiliated with UNC’s law school but supported by private money. Founded by the late, noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, it has taken on legal cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice. Its clients have typically been poor and minority groups, such as neighborhoods battling for municipal water and sewer service or victims of forced sterilization.

The center’s future could be decided Sept. 8, when the UNC Board of Governors is expected to vote on a proposal to ban the center from filing legal actions and litigating. Some board members have said the center’s work is not central to UNC’s education mission or that a public university should not be in the business of suing other government agencies.

A ban would almost certainly mean the end of the center, or at least its affiliation with the university. Critics of the proposal say it would damage the law school’s reputation and exclude law students from a valuable hands-on learning opportunity in the field of civil rights law.

But if the center’s legal powers are curtailed, its clients may be the biggest losers. Many law firms don’t take on civil rights cases, and there is limited free representation for people who can’t afford it.

It’s so critical to small communities and poor communities and people who are discriminated against.

Elizabeth Cox, former executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the North Carolina Sandhills

“It’s so critical to small communities and poor communities and people who are discriminated against,” said Elizabeth Cox, former executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the North Carolina Sandhills, who called the board’s proposed ban tragic. “I’m not really sure what their motivation is, but it’s going to hurt a lot of low-income people.”

In 2009, the center worked with another firm to file a lawsuit on behalf of Habitat against landowners and the town of Pine Bluff in Moore County, alleging racial discrimination and violation of fair housing laws. Cox said Habitat had two donors ready to help the organization buy a piece of property that would have been the largest in the county, in order to build a Habitat development.

First the town rezoned the property and then surrounding neighbors tried to buy up the land, resulting in one roadblock after another, Cox said. “They were judgmental of the type of people that were living in Habitat homes,” she said.

A donor dropped out in frustration, and the case was eventually settled. The Habitat neighborhood was never built on that site, but the organization later went to another community, Midway, with the help of the center and affordable housing nonprofits.

Cox said the center has played “a fundamental role” in its work with three poor communities in Moore County, 75 miles southwest of Raleigh. Center attorneys helped those residents gain access to water, sewer and public services, without filing lawsuits.

It was a losing lawsuit from the center that drew the attention of Board of Governors member Steve Long, the Raleigh lawyer who has been the chief driver of the policy change, which would ban legal action from any UNC center or institute.

The case revolved around the issue of school resegregation in Pitt County, related to the school board’s student assignment plans. In 2008, a previous federal desegregation order was reopened when a group of white parents claimed assignment policies aimed at integration discriminated against their children. A group called the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children argued that the court order was still needed to correct past discrimination in and around Greenville.

That case was settled in 2009, but a year later when the school board adopted a reassignment plan that would have resulted in further segregation, the center filed a motion on behalf of the black parents’ group to stop implementation of the plan. The case made it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals twice, first with a victory for the black parents, but ultimately a loss when the 2-1 court decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that released the district from court oversight.

The complex case was expensive for the school board, which hired the well-known Raleigh firm of Tharrington Smith to litigate. School board members complained that several hundred thousand dollars required for the defense should have gone into classrooms.

Jennifer Little, who served on the school board from 2008 to 2014, called the case “a complete waste of time, money and energy and a huge distraction.”

Little, who has since moved to Costa Rica, said in an email that her sons attended Pitt County schools with large populations of minority students and she felt all students had access to a quality education.

“As a tax paying, public school supporter, I prefer that my money be spent supporting students and teachers instead of funding counterproductive, personal agenda lawsuits,” she wrote in the email.

When you add the power to litigate in that, what you’ve got is the makings of an independent organization, which can be at odds with the educational mission of the university.

Steve Long, member of the UNC Board of Governors

She expressed her thoughts to Long, who has referred to the Pitt County case as an example of why a center, under the UNC banner, should not be allowed to sue another government entity. In a recent interview, Long said he was concerned about the center acting without oversight.

“When you add the power to litigate in that, what you’ve got is the makings of an independent organization,” he said, “which can be at odds with the educational mission of the university.”

Long has criticized the center acting independently to submit friend-of-the-court briefs on voter identification and school voucher lawsuits.

In a memo to a UNC board committee, Long wrote that UNC-Chapel Hill officials, when asked, said the center had “won no judgment proving the merits of its claims in the last 10 years.” About the Pitt County case, which he said was one of the few that went to “an independent judge,” Long wrote that the “center’s claims were thoroughly rejected.”

But Melissa Grimes, a plaintiff and member of the black parents’ group, said the Pitt County case was valid. The numbers were clear that with each new reassignment by the Pitt County board, the schools were becoming more segregated and African-American students more isolated, she said.

“It was always the African-American community that bore the burden and the brunt of it,” said Grimes, of Greenville, who is a teacher in Kinston.

“They kept saying, ‘We’re spending all this money, we’re spending all this money and we should be putting it in the classroom, or we should be spending it on the children,’ ” Grimes said. “No, they didn’t spend it on children. They spent it on certain children. They spent it in certain places.”

Years ago, Grimes and two other parents drove to Chapel Hill to talk to Julius Chambers, who got the ball rolling on their concerns. Even though the parents lost their case in the end, Grimes said, they made their point. There were some changes, she added, including the hiring of more black teachers and principals for the district.

“The center gave voice to people who didn’t have a voice,” Grimes said.

Other court cases, like the Brunswick County case, have been winners. The center sued Halifax County on behalf of a black neighborhood that had been annexed and rezoned by Roanoke Rapids, resulting in land values and property taxes rising an average of 800 percent, according to the center. After the annexation, the residents still did not have sewer or basic services, despite higher property taxes. A settlement resulted in tens of thousands of dollars being returned to the property owners.

From left, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, Orange County Commissioner Renee Price, neighborhood activist the Rev. Robert Campbell and Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich walk down Eubanks Road to celebrate the closing of the Orange County Landfill on Saturday, June 29, 2013, after about 40 years. Residents in the historically black Rogers Road neighborhood fought repeated extensions, citing noise, odor, traffic and vermin. Mark Schultz

In some cases, the center acts in an advocacy and support role.

That was the case in the Rogers Road neighborhood, a historically African-American area outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, next to Orange County’s landfills.

For decades, residents there had problems with their well water, which was cloudy and left clothes with a bad odor, said Minister Robert Campbell, who lives in the neighborhood. There were other nuisances related to the landfill – illegal dumping, truck noise, swarms of buzzards and wild dogs roaming the neighborhood.

Yet when local governments looked for somewhere to build a waste transfer station, Rogers Road was the proposed location. There had been cries of NIMBY around the county, or “not in my backyard.”

“We said, ‘Why doesn’t that apply to the Rogers Road neighborhood?’ ” Campbell recalled.

The neighborhood, caught between the county and two other local governments, was often last on town hall meeting agendas. Residents needed to coordinate better in order to grab the attention of local officials.

They got the support of UNC epidemiologists in public health, engineering students and N.C. State scientists who came in to test soil.

The civil rights center helped the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association file a discrimination claim with three federal agencies, crafting a complaint about air quality, water quality, traffic and other issues.

“We needed a legal mind to help us navigate the waters,” Campbell said. “We looked at the waters as being shark-infested.”

The residents set out to become educated. Campbell can now rattle off the chemicals and heavy metals that seeped from the landfill. Neighbors also began to insist on better enforcement, to curb illegal dumping and to report dump trucks that passed through the neighborhoods without their loads being tied down properly.

The neighborhood joined the N.C. Environmental Justice Network and partnered with various groups. Their voices became stronger. The Center for Civil Rights facilitated some of the advocacy along the way.

“They (were) using this as a classroom and we were their pupils,” Campbell said. “They were teaching us how to negotiate, how to do advocacy work, become those advocates in the community for social justice.”

Local officials paid attention. The transfer station wasn’t built there, and the old dump was closed. A community center was dedicated in 2014. Some neighbors now have municipal water, and they’re in the process of getting sewer service.

On a recent day, the neighborhood was quiet, except for the hum of a lawnmower in the distance. The air was fresh, with no buzzards in sight. Tidy rows of new houses have sprouted, built by Habitat for Humanity.

Campbell and his neighbors have traveled the country to speak to other groups about their journey, passing forward their own knowledge about environmental laws to other community coalitions.

After all, Campbell said, “Isn’t the mission of law to seek justice for everyone?”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill