Appeals Court favors Lenoir County in junkyard brawl with La Grange

Judge John Tyson, center, asks a question during oral arguments at the state Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

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  • The state Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Lenoir County in its dispute with La Grange over permits for a new business near the town.
  • La Grange had argued that the business, Copart, amounted to a junkyard banned by a county ordinance.
  • A unanimous appellate panel agreed that there was a "mismatch" between the county's junkyard definition and Copart's business model.

The state Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Lenoir County and against La Grange in a dispute over a new business permitted near the town. La Grange had argued that the business amounted to a junkyard banned by a county ordinance.

The unanimous decision Tuesday from a three-judge panel upheld a trial court ruling favoring Lenoir County. The county planning board had determined that the business, Copart, engages in permitted auction sales.

“On appeal, the Town does not challenge any findings of fact, but rather argues that by concluding Copart’s business and land use is more closely aligned with ‘Auction Sales,’ rather than a ‘Junk/Salvage Yard,’ the trial court ‘has elevated form over substance, ignoring the manner in which the land itself was to be used,’” Judge Julee Flood wrote. “The Town claims that because the term ‘Auction Sales’ is not defined within the Zoning Ordinance, it should be given its ordinary and plain meaning, which here, should be taken to mean a place ‘where goods are sold to the public who are assembled in one place for the auction.’”

“In essence, the Town argues that Copart’s land use cannot be accurately described as ‘Auction Sales’ because the buyers of Copart’s vehicles do not physically assemble in one place to bid. This argument cherry-picks one understanding of the term ‘auction’ while excluding the even further simplified definition — ‘a sale of property to the highest bidder,’” Flood wrote.

The Appeals Court’s decision “seeks to ascertain the intention of the legislative municipal body, while also favoring the uninhibited free use of property,” Flood added.

“The facts in the Record tend to show Copart: sells vehicles through an online auction system; temporarily stores the vehicles on the Property prior to auction; sells vehicles that are both damaged and undamaged; and does not dismantle, demolish, or abandon any vehicles on the Property,” the court opinion continued. “Conspicuously absent from the Record are any facts to indicate Copart intends to use the Property to keep or accumulate scrap metals, waste papers, rags or building materials. Further, no facts in the Record tend to show that Copart intends to use the Property to store abandoned vehicles or parts of vehicles.”

Appellate judges found a “mismatch” between the zoning ordinance definition of junkyard and Copart’s business.

Judges John Tyson and Valerie Zachary joined Flood’s opinion.

The town, county, and Copart argued in November before the three-judge appellate panel.

The Copart operation would sit near a town-owned well in a Lenoir County commercial zoning district in the US 70 corridor. The County’s planning board approved the auction sales business after a recommendation from a zoning official and an eight-hour hearing. Superior Court Judge Imelda Pate upheld that decision in December 2022.

La Grange argued before appellate judges that Lenoir County’s zoning and junkyard operations should have disqualified the business.

“We believe that if you look at these two ordinances together, reading them together as we believe the county intended, that the planning board’s decision should be reversed, that the proposed use be considered a junk/salvage yard under the zoning ordinance and a junkyard under the junkyard ordinance,” said Gabriel Du Sablon, representing La Grange. “Those two are both issues before this court that need to be resolved.”

The county disputed the suggestion that Copart’s business amounts to a junkyard. “When you look at the incorporation of ‘automobile graveyard’ under that separate junkyard ordinance, this contemplates this is where cars go to die,” argued James “Trey” Ferguson, representing the county. “That’s what a graveyard is. They’re going to go there, and they’re going to die, and that’s their final resting place. And that’s not what’s happening here.”

“You have cars coming in temporarily and then leaving the site after an auction,” Ferguson added.

Copart’s attorney noted that vehicles tend to spend less than 60 days on site at the company’s other similar auction sales sites. “The auction is completed in time for the vehicles to be removed within the 60 days,” said lawyer Keith Anthony. “Often it’s less. In the record the evidence is maybe 50 days or shorter, as short as nine days.”

Tyson asked most of the questions for all three lawyers. He reminded Du Sablon that La Grange bears the burden of proof on appeal.

“You’ve got the burden to show error,” Tyson said. “We’ve got to presume that Judge Pate’s order is correct. So can you show us the error in either her findings or conclusions?”

Tyson questioned how Copart’s business could be considered a junkyard.

“In my mind, the difference is permanency,” Tyson said. “A junkyard will have junk that will be there permanently until it’s either crushed or sold. … A lot of these vehicles will be reconstructed or rebuilt. They’re not necessarily junk.”

Tyson asked why the decision should not be left to county officials. “Isn’t that the reason we have planning boards and zoning administrators to resolve those conflicts on the matters of degree?” he asked. “Why don’t we leave that to the county to determine if they’re going to strictly construe zoning ordinances in favor of the free use of property? Why is it error for them to interpret the ordinance in a way that promotes the free use of property?”

Zachary asked Copart’s lawyer to respond to La Grange’s concerns. “How do you respond to the town’s parade of horribles?” Zachary asked. “If this is allowed, then you’ll be opening the door to commercial kennels and mining and slaughterhouses — basically, anything as long as they operate with an auction?”

“It’s simply not true,” Anthony responded.

The Lenoir County planning board compared Copart to a car dealer, he said. “They said we’re essentially a used-car dealership except that most of our vehicles have some degree of wreckage and they’re all sold by auctions.”