RALEIGH — In a recent decision, the state’s second highest court ruled that a local regulation limiting the number of cars that can park legally on a residential lot is not a parking ordinance but a zoning ordinance. The case, which originated in Chapel Hill, could affect the property rights of property owners who rent space in single-family homes anywhere in the state.
The town of Chapel Hill established the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District to address issues associated with students who rent houses in the Northside neighborhood near the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. In particular, the town sought to reduce the number of students living in the area by limiting the number of tenants in a house to the number of bedrooms in it.
In practice, this proved difficult to enforce, so in 2012 the town took a different tack: limiting to four the number of cars that could park on residential lots — both owner-occupied and rental properties — in the conservation district. If the town found too many cars on a lot it could cite and fine the property owner, rather than the tenants or the owners of the cars.
Several property owners who rented to students were cited by the town; they challenged the legality of the new ordinance. After a Superior Court judge ruled against the property owners, they brought the issue before the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Before the appeals court, the property owners raised two arguments against the town’s new parking rule: that the regulation violates due process protections in the N.C. Constitution and that the state had not give localities the authority to regulate parking on private property.
Article I, Section 19 of the N.C. Constitution provides protections against improper government actions, including the recognition of substantive due process, “a guaranty against arbitrary legislation, demanding that the law be substantially related to the valid object sought to be obtained.”
For their part, the property owners contended that enforcing the parking limit against them, rather than the owners of the vehicles or the tenants, was “entirely irrational, arbitrary and capricious.”
The court of appeals was not swayedt.
“Where defendant enforced a zoning amendment by citing the owners of rental properties rather than their tenants because it was a more effective method of enforcement, their enforcement against property owners was rationally related to the purpose of the zoning restriction and did not violate plaintiffs’ right to substantive due process,” wrote Judge Sanford Steelman for the appeals court.
Steelman noted that Chapel Hill had submitted affidavits from a planner and a code enforcement official stating that the parking regulations were a more effective manner of addressing overcapacity in housing units and that the property owners had not challenged the town’s contention that overcrowded housing was a problem.
Next, the property owners argued that the town didn’t have the authority to regulate parking on private property. N.C. General Statute 60A-301 gives cities the authority to regulate parking on public streets and commercial properties. Because the law doesn’t mention residential property, the property owners claimed Chapel Hill doesn’t have the power to limit parking at the houses they own.
The appeals court also rejected this line of reasoning.
“We conclude that, although the parties have referred to the zoning amendment as a ‘parking’ regulation, the context establishes that the amendment was intended to regulate the ratio of bedrooms to tenants in rental properties in the NNC District by restricting the number of vehicles parked in the yard,” wrote Steelman.
“We hold that regulation of parking in public vehicular areas is fundamentally different from zoning restrictions on the number of cars that may be parked on a private lot by tenants of a house, and that there is no basis for assuming that our General Assembly intended legislation allowing a city to regulate parking in public vehicular areas to diminish a town’s authority to adopt land use zoning regulations that deal with population density or over-occupancy of rental homes. The fact that defendant chose to restrict the number of cars parked on a lawn as a rough proxy for the number of tenants does not transform this into a ‘parking’ ordinance. …”
Court of Appeals rulings are binding interpretations of state law unless overruled by the N.C. Supreme Court. Since the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision, the high court is not required to hear the case if the property owners appeal.
Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.