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Lawsuit filed against several N.C. towns over on-street parking programs

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 3:34 PM EDT
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N.C. (WECT) - State laws are meant to be followed by everyone, across the state; however, so-called local acts grant specific rights to certain localities.

Currently, all four municipalities in New Hanover County along with Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Atlantic Beach, Beaufort, Speaker of the State House Tim Moore, and State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger are being sued for local laws, that set them apart from the rest of the state when it comes to profiting from on-street parking.

Greg Buscemi, a Wrightsville Beach resident and mayoral candidate, filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday, alleging these local acts are in direct violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

There’s a lot of legal minutiae, but the crux of the lawsuit is whether or not these local acts made by the General Assembly are prohibited in the state Constitution.

State law is explicit with how municipalities are allowed to use the proceeds from on-street parking, and there’s a reason why so many towns don’t charge for it.

“Proceeds from the use of parking meters on public streets must be used to defray the cost of enforcing and administering traffic and parking ordinances and regulations,” according to G.S. § 160A-301.

That means that towns could use the money to pay a parking company or for the maintenance of parking meters, but they could not take that money and put it in their general funds. Off-street parking lots owned and operated by the municipality are fair game when it comes to using the proceeds, but since the streets are owned by the state, there are restrictions.

Exceptions to the rule

In the late 90s, the Town of Wrightsville Beach was granted an exemption to the state law allowing them to use parking revenues to help offset taxes, fund lifeguards, and use the money for any public use. The General Assembly approved the new law and the town has been using the parking funds ever since.

In 2001, that law was amended to include all of the municipalities in New Hanover County. It was titled, “An act to allow certain municipalities in New Hanover County to use proceeds from on-street parking meters in the same manner in which proceeds from off-street parking facilities are used.”

“Now they can do that for private lots but not for on-street parking,” said Buscemi. “The streets belong to everyone in the state, and they are provided to them so they can access the beach. And when they start charging for a profit to benefit only their community and no one else, they can’t do that.”

Following the lead of New Hanover County, other cities across the state also managed to get local acts passed allowing them to use on-street money for any public use.

But Buscemi says these local acts are unconstitutional.

“Our state constitution has a specific section that limits the certain areas where the General Assembly can enact local or special laws,” he said.

The impact of these local acts is massive for beach communities like Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach. Paid parking is a big revenue-generator and these funds act as an incentive for municipalities to continue to increase costs and the financial burden of visitors, Buscemi said.

“These local modifications allow the Defendants to charge excessive fees for the use of on-street parking meters and to use the proceeds for public purposes other than defraying the cost of administering traffic and parking ordinances,” according to the lawsuit.

There are several claims Buscemi makes in the lawsuit, but in terms of unconstitutionality, he says that the state constitution forbids these types of local acts.

“N.C. Const. art. II, § 24, which expressly forbids the General Assembly from enacting any local, private, or special act or resolution concerning 14 prohibited subjects, N.C.,” according to the suit.

Some of those subjects include authorizing the Laying Out, Opening, Altering, Maintaining, or Discontinuing of Highways, Streets, or Alleys; Regulating Trade, Labor, Mining, or Manufacturing, but Buscemi says these local acts do just that.

“You can’t profit from on-street parking, that’s why the state law specifically specifies on-street parking and off-street parking. They can own as many private lots as they want — that’s private land, that has nothing to do with people’s right to access the beach. If they want to charge $1,000 a day to park there — by all means. But once you start profiting from on-street parking, you’re violating the state constitution,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday and so far, most of the towns that did respond told WECT they had yet to be served with an official copy of the lawsuit. After receiving a copy of it via email, Brian Edes, the Town of Wrightsville Beach’s attorney said the following.

“As of this writing, the Town has not been served.

Nevertheless, we have reviewed the allegations contained in the Complaint that you provided and offer the following response:

The allegations are baseless and without merit. The Town of Wrightsville Beach has acted in accordance with the authority granted to the Town by the General Statutes of the State of North Carolina. Moreover, the individual who filed the Complaint cannot represent “other similarly situated citizens, residents, taxpayers, and voters” as he has been ordered by the N.C. State Bar to “refrain from practicing law in North Carolina unless and until returned to active status . . .”. That Order is a Consent Order and is a matter of public record...”

As for Buscemi, he wants the courts to make it even across the state and not allow the General Assembly to pick and choose who can or can’t profit from parking.

“So, I’m asking the court to declare the specific local acts that allow these certain municipalities to do this, declare those acts void,” he said.

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