Kimberly Dunckel and her family were not exactly sure what they wanted to do with the more than three acres they purchased on the edge of Winston-Salem in 2017. But they knew they wanted to use their home to build up their community. As they fixed up the property, a vision came together: an animal sanctuary for critters that did not have a place at typical shelters.

Fairytale Farm Animal Sanctuary was born and became a home for donkeys, goats, ducks, rabbits, and more. Many of the animals have special needs, like the little goat Archie, who was born with his back legs fused. At Fairytale Farm, Archie got special care and a set of wheels so he could happily scoot around. Sometimes county animal control even refers needy animals to the sanctuary, since the government can’t take them in.

The Dunckels’ neighbors embraced the sanctuary. The unique physical challenges facing many of the animals they care for have provided a special opportunity to connect with sanctuary visitors who have overcome their own disabilities. Groups of girl scouts and homeschoolers visited to learn about the animals. Groups of volunteers ensured that the dozens of animals living at the sanctuary were loved and cared for. Events open to the community helped raise the money needed to continue the good work.

But early this year, a shadow fell over Fairytale Farm. In January, the city reached out to the Dunckels with an order to close the sanctuary. While Kimberly had been in contact with the city and had done everything she had been instructed, the city determined that the zoning code did not actually permit an animal sanctuary.

Thanks to local media attention and a petition that attracted thousands of signatures, the city decided that the Dunckels could keep the animals, but they had to stop all educational programming and fundraising events. The city also decided they could only have a handful of volunteers visit at a time. So instead of forcing the sanctuary to close outright, the city has instead hamstrung Fairytale Farm’s ability to support itself in the long term.

The sad story of Fairytale Farm is another example of how zoning keeps people from using their property to support themselves, to build a home they can afford, or simply to do good in a creative way. Human creativity is boundless, and city planners cannot hope to cover every worthwhile way that someone might use their property.

Other than the fact that an animal sanctuary is not on the city’s list of approved home businesses, there is no grounded objection to the sanctuary. None of their neighbors have complained, and traffic and parking are not issues. In fact, the Dunckels’ property could have hosted a church, a school, a day care, or a rec center — all permitted uses that would have a lot more visitors and traffic.

To ensure that Fairytale Farm can stay strong and keep giving animals a “happily ever after,” the Dunckels teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) and filed a lawsuit in state court. It’s not the first time that IJ has taken on a North Carolina city that has gone after people just trying to do some good.

North Wilkesboro tried to stop the Catherine H. Barber Memorial Shelter from moving into a new home that a donor had graciously given to it. The town agreed that the shelter satisfied the objective requirements of the zoning code but decided that a shelter wasn’t “harmonious” with its neighbors. In that case, a federal court sided with the shelter and found that the town had abused its power in trying to shut it down. The shelter is now renovating its property and hopes to move in this summer.

The North Carolina Constitution protects the rights of property owners to use their property, free from arbitrary government interference. It also protects the rights of individuals to pursue their chosen occupation, including nonprofit enterprises like the sanctuary, free from arbitrary interference. And Winston-Salem’s restrictions are clearly made up on the fly.

North Carolina’s Equal Protection clause also protects Kimberly and the sanctuary from being treated differently than those around them unless there is a constitutionally legitimate reason to do so. And under the North Carolina Constitution, there is no constitutionally legitimate reason to ban events and severely restrict volunteers while other businesses and entities are allowed to operate with regular customers and guests.

Winston-Salem can’t arbitrarily restrict Kimberly Dunckel’s right to use her property to build community. She’s not hurting anyone; she’s only helping. Hopefully, Fairytale Farm’s fight will not only help the sanctuary, but other North Carolinians who have big dreams for their property.