Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Federal lawsuit filed against Wrightsville Beach for requiring ‘unconstitutional’ $500 appeal fee for $50 ticket

The boat launch near Wrightsville Beach is not town-owned property, yet the town has continued to issue citations to select business owners for using it to launch rental jet skis. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Can the Town of Wrightsville Beach charge $500 to appeal a $50 citation? That is the question at the heart of a federal lawsuit pending against the town and its actions taken against a particular jet ski rental company.

For most people, it’s basic math.

A $50 citation is a lot of money, but a $500 non-refundable fee is significantly more than the citation itself. Even if individuals win an appeal (the likelihood of which is a whole other issue), they would still be out $500, if they lost, they would be out $550.

That is why the owners two jet skit rental companies, Christopher Mangum of Wrighstville Beach Jet Ski Rentals Inc. and Carson Seiter of Carolina Coast Watersports are taking their fight with the town to federal court after being told the only way they could appeal zoning violations was to pay the town $500.

Operating for many years in Wrightsville Beach, Mangum rented jet skis in Wilmington and would meet his customers at the public boat launch ramp in Wrightsville Beach. The property is actually owned by the state, not the town.

Because it is owned by the state, the town has little jurisdiction over what goes on there, but that has not stopped the town from issuing citations to Mangum and Seiter when they have seen them in town.

Since 2016 the town has been citing Mangum, and in 2017 they began issuing Seiter violations, claiming their businesses violated town ordinances because they were not in compliance with town zoning laws.

More specifically, the town claims that because they have not been issued a ‘Certificate of Zoning Compliance’ they are in violation of zoning ordinances. This is the same ‘tool’ the town has tried (unsuccessfully) for years to stop the private club known as Red Dogs from operating.

However, unlike Red Dogs, the jet ski rental companies only used the public access boat launch ramp in Wrightsville Beach, no money was exchanged in the town and no ‘business’ was conducted on town property.

Related: Part I: Wrightsville Beach has tried, and failed, to shut down Red Dogs for three decades

Mangum tried to resolve his issues with the town in Superior Court but has now elevated the case to a federal level claiming the town has violated his constitutional rights. But not before agreeing to a consent judgment that prohibited him from operating his business — which he signed only under threat of being found in default, according to the lawsuit. That’s when attorney Greg Buscemi, the former mayoral candidate who recently lost his campaign to Daryll Mills, got involved and decided federal court would be the best option.

Equal protection

The equal protection clause is found in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” it reads.

The lawsuit against the town claims it has violated the Equal Protection Clause and challenges the town’s authority to “demand a $500 non-refundable appeal fee from persons requesting appeals of adverse zoning decisions.”

There is also a challenge as to whether or not the town has the authority to enforce its own zoning regulations on state-owned property.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are asking the courts to declare the town’s requirement for a $500 non-refundable zoning appeal fee unconstitutional as they violate federal due process rights.

They are also hoping the court rules the town is exceeding its scope of authority by attempting to enforce its zoning ordinances on state-owned land, and asking the courts to nullify any citations and penalties issued to the plaintiffs.

But that’s not all.

The lawsuit is also seeking financial reparations to the companies as well as attorney’s fees. But interestingly, both Town Manager Tim Owens and former Town Attorney John Wessell were named in the suit in their individual capacities.

“Defendants Owens and Wessell in their individual capacities, for the repeated violations of Plaintiffs’ clearly established constitutional and statutory rights, abuse of process, and conspiracy to commit the same. Plaintiffs also seek state-law claims against defendant Owens in his individual capacity for defamation and unfair and deceptive trade practices,” the lawsuit reads.

The courts, however, have ruled on at least one part of the lawsuit, dismissing the claims against Owens in his personal capacity.

“Claims against local government officials in their official capacity are, in essence, claims against the unit of local government for which the official works. As held by the Supreme Court,“[t]here is no longer a need to bring official-capacity actions against local government officials [because] local government units can be sued directly for damages and injunctive or declaratory relief,” according to a court decision from May.

The lawsuit is still pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Southern Division.

Author’s note: This is part one in a multi-part series examining the lawsuit and the allegations against the town, as well as the actions leading up to the lawsuit.

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