La. high court: City-parish A-1 zoning constitutional

Advocate file photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --Local attorney Steve Myers speaks about his rental property on Thursday at 1977 Cherrydale in Baton Rouge. A state district court judge ruled in his favor that a a city-parish law forbidding three or more unrelated people from living together in a house is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but the Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the ruling. Show caption
Advocate file photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --Local attorney Steve Myers speaks about his rental property on Thursday at 1977 Cherrydale in Baton Rouge. A state district court judge ruled in his favor that a a city-parish law forbidding three or more unrelated people from living together in a house is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but the Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the ruling.

Blood, legal family required in single-family homes

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled Baton Rouge can cap the number of unrelated people living in rental homes.

The high court’s ruling Wednesday reverses District Judge Janice Clark’s 2013 opinion that the city-parish housing ordinance was unconstitutional and unenforceable because of the way it defined families.

Steve Myers, a landlord and candidate for mayor in 2012, sued the city-parish last year over its A-1 zoning classification that requires homes be “single family” occupied. Family is defined in the Unified Development Code as “an individual or two or more persons who are related by blood, marriage or legal adoption living together.”

With the state Supreme Court’s ruling, that definition stands, and the ordinance is again enforceable.

“In the instant case, the defendant has failed to demonstrate that he is treated differently than any other homeowner in the ‘A1’ district,” Associate Justice Jeff Hughes wrote in the majority opinion.

Myers’ attorneys argued the ordinance prevented alternative family structures, including foster parents and gay couples with children, from living together. They also claimed the law violated the constitutional rights of privacy, association and equal protection.

“Although we disagree with and are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision, we do feel that we have succeeded in bringing to light the severe flaws that exist within the city-parish’s definition of ‘family’,” Myers’ attorney Grant Guillot said Thursday. “Given the ever-evolving notion of ‘family’ in today’s society, it is only a matter of time before the city-parish will have no choice but to reconstruct its definition of ‘family’ to pass constitutional muster.”

The ordinance has been used most frequently to prevent young professionals or college students from renting homes in residential neighborhoods, but Myers previously noted that it also would prevent three nuns or “The Golden Girls” from renting together.

Paul Naquin, who has lived on Morning Glory Avenue in the Southdowns neighborhood since 1957, originally reported Myers to the city-parish for violating the ordinance because he allowed unrelated people to live in a house on Cherrydale Avenue.

“I hope that the people of Louisiana that live in nice neighborhoods with nice young families, peaceful neighborhoods we’re all used to, keep up with all of this and fight on their own behalf also,” Naquin said of the court’s ruling this week. “It’s a big issue for everyone who lives in A-1 single-family subdivisions.”

Naquin said he was satisfied by the court’s ruling.

“All you have to do is look at the city ordinances. It describes what A-1 single family is,” he said. “When you rent to seven unrelated people or six unrelated people or five in a single residential home, it’s breaking the laws of the city.”

In a separate but concurring opinion Wednesday, Associate Justice John Weimer expressed concern “about the continued constitutional validity, in a different factual scenario, of the ordinance’s definition of ‘family’ for zoning purposes, based solely on certain enumerated biological or legal relationships.”

“This is not to suggest that the goal of the city-parish ordinance is not legitimate,” Weimer wrote. “To the contrary, the purpose of A-1 zoning — to ensure the availability of residential areas that provide open space, and protect against the problems of overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution, noise, and other nuisances associated with over-crowding — are entirely appropriate and legitimate.”

He continued, “The problem lies in attempting to accomplish these goals through the use of criteria based on biological and legal relationships that may not further, but actually inhibit, accomplishment of that goal.”

Using Myers’ example, he compared three nuns living together, which would violate the ordinance, versus 20 distant cousins who could legally reside together under the “single family” requirement.

Earlier this year, Myers began placing “Section 8 Welcome” signs in front of rental properties he owns in Southdowns, advertising to low-income renters who qualify for the federal housing assistance program. He told The Advocate at the time that Section 8 recruitment could help him keep his properties occupied if the high court ruled against him.

Joining Hughes and Weimer in upholding the housing ordinance were Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Associate Justices Jeffrey Victory and Marcus Clark.

Associate Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll was the only dissenting vote.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz