Town of Beech Mountain v. Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc.

Decision Date10 May 2016
Docket NumberCOA15–517.,Nos. COA15–260,s. COA15–260
Citation247 N.C.App. 444,786 S.E.2d 335
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals
Parties TOWN OF BEECH MOUNTAIN, Plaintiff, v. GENESIS WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, INC., Defendant.

Eggers, Eggers, Eggers, & Eggers, PLLC, Boone, by Stacy C. Eggers, IV ; and Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, LLP, by Patrick H. Flanagan, Charlotte, and Meagan I. Kiser, for plaintiff-appellant.

Wake Forest University School of Law Appellate Advocacy Clinic, by John J. Korzen ; and Clement Law Office, Boone, by Charles E. Clement and Charles A. Brady, III, for defendant-appellee.

GEER, Judge.

Plaintiff, the Town of Beech Mountain (the "Town"), filed two appeals arising out of a lawsuit the Town brought against defendant Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc. ("Genesis") for summary ejectment. We have consolidated the appeals for hearing and decision. On appeal, the Town first argues that the trial court erroneously granted Genesis summary judgment on the Town's summary ejectment claim. Based on our review of the record, we agree with the trial court that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Genesis breached its lease.

The Town further argues that the trial court erred in denying its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") on Genesis' counterclaim, which alleged that a buffer zone passed as part of the Town's Buckeye Lake Protection Ordinance ("Ordinance"), as applied to Genesis, violated Genesis' substantive due process rights. Because Genesis presented substantial evidence that § 93.21(F) of the Ordinance was arbitrary and capricious as applied to Genesis, given that § 93.21(F) was designed and enforced in a manner intended to preclude Genesis from operating as a wildlife sanctuary, the trial court properly allowed the case to go to the jury. Because we also find the Town's additional arguments unpersuasive, we hold that the Town received a trial free of prejudicial error.

Facts

On 20 October 1999, the Town entered into a 30–year lease agreement with Genesis (the "Lease") for a 0.84 acre tract of land located adjacent to Buckeye Lake in Watauga County, North Carolina. Genesis, a non-profit organization incorporated for the purposes of wildlife rehabilitation and education, entered into the Lease with the Town with the express intent to house animals on the property. The Lease specifically provided, consistent with Genesis' intent: "The use of the Leased Premises is restricted to the construction, operation and maintenance of an education center that educates the general public as to how people and wildlife may peacefully co-exist. It is understood and agreed to by the parties that the Lessee may from time to time house wildlife upon the premises[.]"

Over the years from 2000 to 2006, in accordance with the Lease, Genesis built several structures on the property. A larger one, known as the "Dome," was used as an office, a residential area for volunteers, and an animal display area. Genesis also built several animal habitats on the property, including caging and fencing. Relations with the Town during this time were good, and Genesis was very successful in attracting visitors—predominantly school groups—from across the state, and even enthusiasts from as far away as Germany.

Starting in 2008, however, the Town became interested in using Buckeye Lake for recreational purposes, and it contacted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources ("DENR") to learn whether Buckeye Lake could be used for such purposes. Buckeye Lake serves as the Town's drinking water source and is therefore classified by DENR as a Class I reservoir subject to numerous statewide laws and regulations. At the end of 2008, Tom Boyd, Environmental Senior Specialist of the Public Water Supply Section of DENR who had visited Buckeye Lake and Genesis' property, encouraged the Town to draft a municipal ordinance for the purposes of protecting Buckeye Lake as a public drinking source in accordance with section .1200 of the DENR's Rules Governing Public Water Supplies.

In a letter dated 18 December 2008, Boyd informed the Town he had visited Genesis' site in October 2008 and found one of its animal cages was in danger of contaminating a stream that fed into Buckeye Lake by animal waste runoff. Boyd also noted that Genesis had informed him it was planning to relocate the animal cages to a different location and maintain the tract of land for educational purposes. At this time, Genesis was in the process of moving at least some of its operations to a location known as Eagle's Nest in Banner Elk, North Carolina.

After two Town Council meetings in early 2009, the Town adopted the Buckeye Lake Protection Ordinance on 10 February 2009. In one section of the ordinance, § 93.21(F), the Town provided: "No animals can be caged or housed within 200 feet of Buckeye Lake, or within 2,0001 feet of any stream that drains into Buckeye Lake." During the two Town Council meetings, Mayor Rick Owen and the Town Council members, when deciding on the 200–foot buffer, specifically emphasized that the 200–foot distance would cover all the structures on Genesis' property and even bar animals housed inside. Mayor Owen unambiguously stated that the intent of the Ordinance was to "eliminate [Genesis'] ability to have animals and continue to have animals at [the Buckeye Lake] facility."

The Town did not inform Genesis it had passed the Ordinance. Genesis, in May 2009, partially moved its operations to the Eagle's Nest location. However, Genesis' time at Eagle's Nest was short-lived. As a result of the lack of sewer and water at Eagle's Nest, and the bankruptcy of its financier, Genesis began moving the animals back to the Buckeye Lake location within a matter of months.

Before and after the Town passed the Ordinance, the Town experienced problems with sewage overflow from a lift station it owned and operated that was located in close proximity to Buckeye Lake. In fact, since as early as 2004 and on numerous different occasions, several hundred thousand gallons of sewage overflowed from this lift station into Buckeye Lake. Specifically, on 14 January 2010, the Town received a notice of violation from DENR employee Steve Tedder, indicating a sewage overflow of 147,000 gallons relating to two different incidents in December 2009.

On 24 August 2010, the Town received notification from DENR that the department had discovered pathogenic bacteria in Buckeye Lake, potentially threatening its use as a water supply. The notification also indicated that DENR believed Genesis' operation at Buckeye Lake was "in violation of the town of Beech Mountain's Buckeye Lake use Ordinance" and that "the town may be in violation of 15A NCAC 18C.1201(a) and .1202."

On 15 September 2010, the Town informed Genesis by letter that all outdoor animals and habitats, with the exception of one used for storage, had to be removed from the property within six months pursuant to a plan to comply with applicable state water safety codes. The letter threatened legal action if Genesis failed to comply.

In addition to this letter, the Town verbally enforced the terms of the Ordinance, informing Genesis that it not only had to remove all outside animals, but also had to remove all animals and cages housed inside the Dome structure. The Town falsely represented to Genesis that DENR and the State required the removal of animals and cages from the entirety of Genesis' Buckeye Lake site, including animals and cages entirely indoors. Under the threat of legal action from the State and the Town, Genesis removed all animals and cages from its Buckeye Lake facility, causing significant damage to the Dome's aesthetic structure and requiring significant effort and cost to move Genesis' operations to a new location known as "Fireweed," owned by Genesis' former president and founder, Leslie Hayhurst. Upon the relocation to Fireweed, Genesis was not permitted by the Town to host large groups as it had at Buckeye Lake, and it struggled to find a use for the Dome as it was contemplated in the Lease. Hayhurst later discovered that the Town's threats that the State would take action if they did not remove all the animals were unfounded.

On 28 March 2012, notwithstanding Genesis' efforts to comply with § 93.21(F) of the Ordinance, Genesis received a letter from the Town attorney claiming that Genesis was in breach of the Lease because, the Town claimed, (1) Genesis was using the property for purposes which violate the law and (2) Genesis was failing to "make all arrangements for repairs necessary to keep the Premises in good condition." Subsequently, the Town filed a summary ejectment action on 23 April 2012 and obtained a judgment of ejectment on 10 May 2012.

Genesis appealed to district court, moved to transfer the action to superior court, and filed multiple counterclaims, including a § 1983 claim that the Town had violated Genesis' substantive due process rights.2 The Town and Genesis each filed motions for summary judgment on all the parties' claims and counterclaims. Genesis also filed a request for a declaratory judgment that the Ordinance be classified a zoning ordinance—the trial court entered the requested declaratory judgment on 30 October 2013.

On 5 September 2014, the trial court granted Genesis' motion for summary judgment on the Town's breach of lease claim and also granted summary judgment in favor of the Town on Genesis' counterclaim for unfair and deceptive trade practices. Genesis voluntarily dismissed its counterclaim for violation of Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution. On 1 October 2014, the Town appealed the order granting Genesis' motion for summary judgment on the Town's breach of lease claim. This appeal was docketed as No. COA15–260.

Genesis' remaining counterclaims were tried on 15 September 2014. At the close of Genesis' evidence, the Town moved for a directed verdict, which the trial court granted with respect to Genesis' counterclaims asserting a Fifth...

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