This week a federal district court held that the Catherine H. Barber Memorial Shelter should be allowed to open at its property in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and that the town and its zoning board violated the U.S. Constitution and North Carolina law in deciding otherwise. In October 2020, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit, public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Barber Shelter challenging the town’s efforts to prevent the private charity from using its own property to help others.
The Barber Shelter applied for a zoning permit to open at a new facility in North Wilkesboro that is in an ideal location, near businesses and public transit but far from residential areas, and meets the town’s requirements for homeless shelters. But the Board invented reasons to deny the permit. This, the Barber Shelter and IJ argued, violated the Shelter’s equal protection rights because 128 other types of businesses could exist in the same location and face the same sort of “issues” the government cited in denying the Barber Shelter’s permit, but each of those 128 other uses would be allowed to open. Moreover, the Board’s reasoning meant that there was literally nowhere in town for a homeless shelter to go.
Thankfully, the court saw through the Board’s tortured reasons for what they were: excuses to keep the county’s only homeless shelter out of town. “The Board apparently believes—incorrectly—that it can say the magic words ‘traffic and safety’ and this Court will rubber stamp the classification no matter the facts…,” wrote U.S. District Judge Kenneth D. Bell. “But such deference cannot be an excuse for the Court to abdicate its duty to protect the constitutional rights of all people.”
Instead, based on the evidence, the court concluded that “North Wilkesboro intentionally treated the Shelter differently from other similarly situated uses, and there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.”
“With today’s ruling in hand, we are going to be hard at work to continue our mission in the Town of North Wilkesboro, especially as the cold weather settles in,” said Barber Shelter Chair Elizabeth Huffman. “All we want to do is serve our clients and our community, and this location is the perfect spot for us to be able to do that. The court’s decision is the best Christmas present we could have asked for.”
“Today’s ruling is an important victory for property rights,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “As the court correctly recognized, the Constitution demands that government have a rational reason for limiting people’s property rights. The court thoroughly examined the evidence and found that North Wilkesboro had no good reason to prevent the Barber Shelter from opening. This decision is a victory for the Barber Shelter and ought to help anyone fighting a bogus zoning denial, in North Carolina and beyond.
The Barber Shelter opened its doors more than three decades ago and has since served countless individuals in need of help. Most of its clients are experiencing temporary homelessness due to acute economic distress, domestic abuse, or a family breakdown. Its goal is to transition people as quickly as possible to more long-term arrangements, working with local social services agencies to help people access resources and get back on their feet. In 2020, a local dentist offered to donate his 3,000 square foot office building when the shelter found itself in need of new space.
“The Barber Shelter should have never needed to file a federal lawsuit to open at this location,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “North Wilkesboro should have recognized all along that the location is perfect for a homeless shelter rather than violating the Constitution by making up reasons to deny a permit.”
“We hope that other governments think twice when denying permits for people to use their own property,” said IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “The Constitution demands rationality, and the Institute for Justice stands ready to fight back against irrational government decisions.”