One skirmish in the nation’s ongoing battle over abortion is being played out in a West Raleigh zoning case.
On Tuesday evening, more than 50 people appeared at a meeting of the West Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council to argue over whether an anti-abortion group should get a rezoning that would allow it to have an office next door to a clinic on Jones Franklin Road that offers abortion services.
After an hour of intense debate, the advisory group voted 30-17 to recommend the city grant the rezoning requested by A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, which says it encourages pregnant women to consider alternatives to abortion.
The advisory group said its recommendation was based on its belief that the request complies with the city’s Future Land Use Map, which calls for a mix of uses along the Jones Franklin corridor
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The zoning case now goes to the Raleigh Planning Commission for review, with the final decision resting with the City Council.
Hand of Hope owns the property next to Preferred Women’s Health Center and wants it rezoned from residential to commercial, in order to relocate from leased space it occupies on Jones Franklin further away from Preferred. Its supporters say Hand of Hope would save money and get it closer to potential clients.
People opposed to the rezoning told the neighborhood advisory group that they fear Hand of Hope, or its allies, would harass women seeking services at Preferred Women’s Health Center if allowed to locate next door.
“Those are the kinds of things they do,” said Leigh Sanders, who lives on Octavia Street. Sanders said she hopes that if the rezoning is granted, the city requires Hand of Hope to erect a fence on its border with the abortion clinic.
“Neighborhood conflict is something that we should all be concerned with,” said Darcy Downs, an opponent of the rezoning who lives on Melbourne Road.
Tonya Baker Nelson, founder and executive director of Hand of Hope, said they have nothing to worry about. Anti-abortion activists sometimes protest at the abortion clinic, but those protesters aren’t affiliated with Hand of Hope, she said.
“We do not protest and we will not allow people to protest on our property,” Nelson said. “And we don’t need to stand on the corner to try to get people to come see us.”
Other speakers supported the rezoning.
“You have one who is, let’s call it pro-choice, and the other is pro-life. Let the woman decide,” said Dennis Hulick, who lives on Wade Park Boulevard. “They’re both right there, and they’re both about health care. So why not have them there?”
Representatives of the Preferred Women’s Health Center didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Anti-abortion groups use several strategies for getting in touch with pregnant women who may be considering abortion, including buying or renting land next to abortion clinics. Pregnancy Support Services, a Christian nonprofit, is located two doors down from the Planned Parenthood Chapel Hill Health Center.
It’s also common for such groups to run websites with addresses similar to abortion providers, which Hand of Hope does with its website yourchoicepregnancyclinic.com.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first time in years that the citizens advisory committee voted with written ballots rather than conducting a voice vote, committee co-chairman Benson Kirkman said. The vote is merely symbolic of the community’s wishes and has no direct effect on the outcome of the zoning request.
The planning commission is expected to review the request on May 10 and make a recommendation to the City Council. The council could review the request on June 7 at the earliest, said Vivian Ekstrom, a city planner.
The government panels under city code aren’t allowed to consider the nature of businesses applying for a new zone. But that didn’t stop residents from arguing over whether Hand of Hope’s potential move is appropriate for the community.
Kirkman said he thinks Hand of Hope’s rezoning request has “better than a 50-50 shot” of gaining approval from city leaders.
What’s a CAC?
Raleigh has 19 Citizens Advisory Councils, each representing a different neighborhood.
Known as CACs, the groups govern themselves, electing their own officers and choosing their priorities.
The groups are nonpartisan. They are the only boards set up to advise the City Council whose members the council doesn’t appoint.