Raleigh Report

Raleigh anti-abortion group to skip local courts, continue federal suit against city

City Council rejects Hand of Hope zoning request

Tonya Baker Nelson, executive director of Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, was shocked after the Raleigh City Council denied her group's request to conduct business in the house it owns next to an abortion clinic.
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Tonya Baker Nelson, executive director of Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, was shocked after the Raleigh City Council denied her group's request to conduct business in the house it owns next to an abortion clinic.

A local anti-abortion group hopes that a federal court will overturn a city ruling that prevents it from moving next to an abortion clinic.

Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, a nonprofit that encourages alternatives to abortion, has been trying since April to open an office next to A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Raleigh, which offers abortion services at a clinic on Jones Franklin Road.

Raleigh’s Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial panel of local residents that interprets development regulations, ruled Monday that the city’s zoning rules prevent Hand of Hope from opening an office on residential property at 1522 Jones Franklin Road.

Hand of Hope could appeal the board’s ruling in Wake County Superior Court. But Tonya Baker Nelson, Hand of Hope’s founder, said this week that her group will forgo that opportunity and instead push forward with a federal lawsuit that it filed against the city in August.

“We’re not going to go through Wake Superior Court,” Nelson said. “We’re going to seek relief at the federal level.”

Hand of Hope sued Raleigh in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Hand of Hope contends that by rejecting its request to rezone the property next to the abortion clinic the City Council violated the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, denying the group’s rights to free speech, religion and equal treatment under the law.

How it started

Hand of Hope, which also operates as “Your Choice Pregnancy Center,” for years has operated out of property it leases at 1701 Jones Franklin Road, less than half-a-mile from the Women’s Health Center. To save money and get closer to potential clients, Hand of Hope’s leaders bought the house next to the clinic at 1522 Jones Franklin in December 2015.

But the house is on property zoned for residential living, not a “medical facility,” which is how the group is designated in Raleigh’s zoning codes. So, about a year ago, Hand of Hope petitioned the City Council to rezone the property to allow for it to operate there.

The council in July unanimously denied Hand of Hope’s request. Council members said little at the time about why.

Councilwoman Kay Crowder, whose district includes Jones Franklin Road, read a prepared statement. She said Hand of Hope’s property would better comply with the city’s Future Land Use Map – a guide for future development – if it were rezoned as part of a larger commercial project that included all of Woodsdale Road, a dead-end street that runs next to the site.

Potential loophole

After being denied by the City Council, Hand of Hope realized that it could potentially change its fate by changing its classification as a “medical facility” in city codes. City codes don’t allow for medical facilities to do business out of Hand of Hope’s Jones Franklin house, but the codes would allow for a civic group to operate there.

So Hand of Hope asked the city’s planning department to review its status as a medical facility. The department gave Hand of Hope a questionnaire to fill out. Based on the group’s answers, Travis Crane, an assistant planning director, determined in November that Hand of Hope is more of a civic group than a medical facility.

The owners of A Preferred Women’s Health Center then appealed city staff’s ruling to the Raleigh Board of Adjustment. The board has five voting members – four of whom are appointed by the City Council and one who is appointed by the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The board is considered non-partisan.

A medical facility?

The adjustment board heard the Hand of Hope case during its meeting Monday, and board members focused on the elements of Hand of Hope’s operation that seem medical in nature.

Raleigh city codes are vague on what constitutes a medical facility: “A facility providing medical or surgical care to patients. Some facilities may offer overnight care.”

Crane, the city staffer, said Monday that he didn’t consider Hand of Hope medical in nature because most of its staff lacks medical training. And while the group uses an ultrasound machine on pregnant women, Hand of Hope said its findings are “non-diagnostic,” meaning they offer minimal information.

Calla Hales, a spokeswoman for the Women’s Health Center, argued that ultrasound screenings are diagnostic by nature if they reveal a baby or fetus at all. Further, Hales said, ultrasound machines require medical training to use and interpret.

Adjustment board members noted, too, that Hand of Hope has a medical director, Dr. Greg Brannon, and a nurse manager on staff. In a 3-2 vote, the board deemed Hand of Hope a medical practice and blocked its move next to the abortion clinic.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht