by Sam Wardle
“You are out of order,” the mayor said, his voice rising in frustration. Across the room, the defiant woman snorted in disgust.
“I am understanding I am out of order, but so are you!” she shouted back.
The woman, standing erect and imperial, turned to the small, stunned crowd of attorneys, city employees, reporters and citizens assembled for the evening meeting. She shouted that they’d been lied to, and then, after a subsequent exchange with the mayor, his honor ejected her from Town Hall.
The scene could well be the opening to John Grisham’s latest legal potboiler. But the setting is not in the pages of a thriller or in a courtroom of a prime time drama . The mayor is Mark Chilton; the location, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen’s March 3 public hearing. And the woman is Orange County landowner Marilyn Kille.
Kille’s long, strange battle with Carrboro began in 2006, when a person who had rented an apartment in her horse barn wrote a letter to the town complaining of substandard conditions in the unit, including intermittent water service and mould. The Town of Carrboro does not mediate landlord-tenant disputes, but the notification tipped staff off to the existence of an apartment that assistant town attorney T.C. Morphis said was never approved.
Illegal apartments are not entirely unheard of in Orange County. Many so-called “in-law” units that landlords install in basements or over garages are technically noncompliant with local land-use ordinances. Some were installed before current zoning rules were adopted; others were built without knowledge of—or in blatant disregard for—the same laws.
Kille brought a handful of such dwellings to light in the process of her struggle with Carrboro. In an attempt to justify her own apartment, Kille provided zoning inspectors with the addresses of 17 other homeowners with what she claimed were apartments similar to hers. Town records show that, in March 2008, inspectors followed up on the tips. Only one of the 17 was actually in noncompliance; the property owner quickly obtained an occupancy certificate.
Though Kille’s 19.5-acre Peppermint Spring Farm lies outside of Carrboro city limits, it is beholden to town zoning regulations under the state policy of extraterritorial jurisdiction. And since the property is within Carrboro’s Watershed Residential zoning district, Kille isn’t permitted to build a second dwelling on the farm without subdividing it. Kille has explored the subdivision option, but has not yet completed the legal process required to gain approval for it.
Kille was ordered to remove the apartment; Morphis said this could have been as simple as removing the kitchen and making a few changes to the floor plan. She refused.
Kille built the 520-square-foot apartment in 1997, two years after she moved onto the farm. She said she rented it for $550 a month to people who also helped her care for her horses. Though she admits she has no certificate of occupancy or any other documentation from the town approving the unit as a dwelling, Kille claims that town inspectors must have been aware of its presence, since they made multiple visits to the barn that houses it as the structure was being built.
Two and a half years of litigation and one $10,000 fine later, the apartment still stands, and Kille’s complaints against the town and its agents have intensified. Outside Town Hall, Kille alleged the suit against her was being advanced to line the pockets of attorneys and to seize control of her property. She brought up the specter of annexation—a touchy issue for many in Carrboro—and suggested a town employee had been bribed by a subcontractor in connection with the apartment’s construction. She said inspectors have applied inconsistent standards over the years, costing her thousands of dollars in unnecessary construction costs. Kille has provided no evidence for her claims of malfeasance on the part of town officials.
At the March 3 meeting, Morphis was midway through a blow-by-blow discussion of the Kille/ Carrboro legal imbroglio when the woman herself appeared in the door.
Kille, who was clued into the board’s unadvertised discussion of her court case by a friend watching the meeting on the town Web site, rushed into Town Hall and interrupted Morphis with a request to tell her side of the story. Chilton declined the request, a decision Kille summarily ignored. Standing next to Town Attorney Mike Brough, Kille unleashed a litany of complaints before Chilton ejected her from the chamber.
Seconds after she stormed from the hearing, Kille vented her rage at the Town of Carrboro.
“What you heard tonight was fraud,” she fumed. “It was deception, manipulation beyond belief.”
Kille’s case and her allegations about town leaders have caught the attention of local media. A Feb. 19 article, followed by a Feb.22 editorial, in the Chapel Hill Herald, both written by Herald editor Dan Way, repeated many of Kille’s arguments. The Herald advanced a story discussed previously on the feisty right-wing Orange County political blog Squeeze the Pulp; both publications’ versions basically square with Kille’s portrayal of events.
It’s a portrayal that has puzzled town officials.
In a detailed memo to the Board of Aldermen, Morphis outlined what he called “significant inaccuracies” in the Herald and Pulp articles, including claims that Carrboro was using the apartment issue as leverage to annex Kille’s land. In response to the coverage, and a rising tide of public complaints as a result, Chilton took the unorthodox step of discussing Kille’s case in public (under North Carolina law, town litigation may be discussed in a closed-door hearing).
Morphis said he doesn’t understand why Kille hasn’t taken advantage of a number of opportunities to resolve the issue.
“It’s a strange situation for us,” he said. “We’ve tried to work with Ms. Kille… but it never comes out that way in the media.”