The city Planning Commission will recommend that the City Council allow an anti-abortion group to set up offices next to a Raleigh abortion clinic.
The City Council is scheduled on May 17 to consider a request by A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, which encourages alternatives to abortion, to open an office next to A Preferred Women’s Health Center, which offers abortions. The request has proven controversial: While Hand of Hope supporters say it will help their cause, some fear the move could heighten tensions in the community.
Hand of Hope now leases space less than a mile down the road from the abortion clinic. Late last year, the organization bought the house next door to the clinic but can’t open offices there unless the city allows commercial operations on the property.
On Tuesday, Hand of Hope’s request to allow commercial operations went before the Planning Commission, a group of residents appointed by the City Council to judge whether such land-use requests are in compliance with city codes. The commission is not supposed to consider the nature of businesses requesting to rezone their property, said commission chairman Steve Schuster.
With that in mind, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of Hand of Hope’s request. The commission heard from five residents prior to its vote. Two supported the request, two opposed it. The fifth resident said the 30-17 West Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council’s vote supporting the request may not accurately reflect the region’s views.
“I acknowledge this is a sensitive issue with very passionate feelings on both sides, and I have very passionate feelings,” Schuster said prior to the vote. “That being said, today is about the rezoning of the property and whether its consistent or not with our comprehensive plan and future land-use map.”
“From a purely zoning standpoint, it appears as if this request is pretty straightforward,” he later said.
City government staff is expected to present Hand of Hope’s request to the City Council. The council can act as it wishes but is likely to set a public hearing for a later date. The earliest available date for a council hearing would be June 7, according to Vivian Ekstrom, the city planner in charge of the case.
Hand of Hope’s request brings renewed attention to Jones Franklin Road, where both anti-abortion groups and abortion rights activists have demonstrated in front of the clinic.
Hand of Hope’s leader, Tonya Baker Nelson, says her group doesn’t participate in the protests and won’t allow protesters on its property. None of her organization’s 23 staff members were listed on any of the 26 protest permits issued for Jones Franklin Road in 2015, according to city records.
But opponents of Hand of Hope’s request worry that tensions will escalate if the organization moves next door. Clinic owner Lois Turner has described the move as an intimidation tactic, and some residents agree.
“These women go in knowing they’re making a difficult decision,” said Carrie Rogers, a resident and opponent of the rezoning. “And yet the Hand of Hope organization is saying to them, ‘Wait, you need to think about this again and realize that the guilt that you now have, that you’re going to feel the rest of your life, is not enough guilt. We need to give you a little bit more.’”
Hand of Hope supporter Jay Summers says he shares the same concern about protesters as pro-choice residents.
“They’re against the protestors, we’re against the protestors. If we could shut them down tomorrow, we would,” said Summers.
“Graphic signs, loudspeakers – those actually harm Hand of Hope’s approach, which is a compassionate approach,” he said. “It’s saying: ‘Here are your choices allowed under the law, we want you to consider this alternative. ... We’ll do whatever we can to help you through this.”