Raleigh Report

Raleigh’s attorney defends controversial vote against anti-abortion group

The Raleigh City Council acted within its power in its controversial decision to deny an anti-abortion group’s request to move next to an abortion clinic, the city attorney said.

Council members have “wide discretion” in deciding whether to rezone property to allow for a particular use, Tom McCormick, Raleigh’s attorney, said in an email Wednesday.

“It is important to remember that when making a zoning decision the council must consider all potential uses in a proposed district and cannot make a decision based on one specific use,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously denied a request by A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Resource Center to conduct business out of its property on Jones Franklin Road in West Raleigh. The site is next to A Preferred Women’s Health Center, which offers abortion services.

Under the city’s zoning code, only residential uses are allowed on the property, so A Hand of Hope asked the council to rezone the site to allow for commercial use.

The case put the City Council in the middle of the battle between opposite sides of the abortion debate, an unusual subject for land-use matter.

On Tuesday, A Hand of Hope leaders said they are considering legal action.

“We’ve got a ton of lawyers ready and willing to interpret why they failed us,” said Tonya Baker Nelson, director of A Hand of Hope, which encourages pregnant women to pursue alternatives to abortion. “They’re looking into our legal options.”

Nelson said the group’s request complied with Raleigh’s development guidelines. The city’s Planning Commission – residents appointed by the council to judge whether such land-use requests comply with codes – unanimously recommended approval of the request.

But council members said Tuesday a small office wouldn’t be the best use for the site, near the Crossroads Plaza shopping center.

Council member Kay Crowder, who represents West Raleigh, said the property would better comply with the city’s Future Land Use Map 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.

A Hand of Hope’s property, if rezoned, would be the only commercial operation on Woodsdale, she said.

“This coordinated approach would produce a more efficient use of the land,” Crowder said. “In contrast, this lot-by-lot piecemeal nonresidential development will produce small-scale offices on small lots.”

Some people applauded the council’s vote Tuesday.

“The Raleigh City Council stood up for women in our city,” said Leigh Sanders, who lives in West Raleigh. “Patients at (the clinic) will be safer from harassment.”

But others were critical. Ed Bell, who lives on Woodsdale Road, said he supported A Hand of Hope’s request in part because its office would be “a relatively low-traffic operation.”

The North Carolina Values Coalition, which aims to protect unborn babies, said the council “showed obvious bias in favor of abortion clinics” and acted on an ideological agenda.

“The Raleigh City Council has discriminated against A Hand of Hope Pregnancy Center by denying it the right to use its own property as it sees fit, because it offers women’s healthcare and alternatives to abortion,” Tami Fitzgerald, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

The public property in front of the abortion clinic has for years been a site where anti-abortion and abortion rights groups have held demonstrations. Twenty-six groups acquired protest permits for that part of Jones Franklin Road in 2015.

Nelson said A Hand of Hope does not participate in the protests and won’t allow protesters on its property. The group’s 23 staff members were not listed on the protest permits, according to a News & Observer review of city records.

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 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.

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

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