La Grange, Lenoir County take junkyard brawl to NC Appeals Court

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 will decide whether Lenoir County officials violated their own ordinances by permitting an automobile auction sales operation just outside La Grange.
  • La Grange officials argued before a three-judge appellate panel that the operation should have been rejected as a junkyard.
  • The county planning board and a Superior Court judge upheld the decision to permit the business along US 70.

North Carolina’s second-highest court will decide in the weeks ahead whether Lenoir County violated its own ordinances by permitting a new automobile auction-sales operation just outside La Grange. The town argues that the business should have been rejected as an impermissible junkyard.

The town, county, and the business — Copart — argued Tuesday morning before a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals.

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.”

Gabriel Du Sablon at N.C. Court of Appeals
Attorney Gabriel Du Sablon offers an oral argument at the state Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

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.

James Ferguson at N.C. Court of Appeals
Attorney James “Trey” Ferguson offers an oral argument at the state Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

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.”

Judge John 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?”

Judge Valerie 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.

Keith Anthony at N.C. Court of Appeals
Attorney Keith Anthony offers an oral argument at the state Court of Appeals. (Image from North Carolina Court of Appeals YouTube channel)

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.”

Tyson, Zachary, and Judge Julee Flood face no deadline to issue a ruling in La Grange v. Lenoir County.