- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that an Ohio suburb did not violate the Constitution by giving voters a chance to block a mostly black housing development.

The ruling was a victory for community officials who are sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place — trying to please voters concerned about their property values while at the same time providing much-needed low-income housing.

But it was major defeat for direct advocates of low-income housing.

The case involves the community of Cuyahoga Falls, near Akron.

In June 1995, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation and others bought land zoned for apartments in Cuyahoga Falls. The foundation is a non-profit corporation formed to develop affordable housing through the use of low-income tax credits.

Later that year, Buckeye submitted a site plan to the city housing commission for a development to be called Pleasant Meadows, a multi-family low-income housing complex.

The plan drew immediate protests from some Cuyahoga Falls residents. But after Buckeye made changes in the security around the proposed complex, the commission unanimously approved the site plan.

However, public opposition grew "and eventually coalesced into a referendum petition drive."

Under the city charter, voters have the power to approve or veto any ordinance within 30 days of its passage by the City Council.

At a series of City Council meetings and special meetings organized by opponents, residents gave a number of reasons for resisting the complex.

According to court records, those reasons included concern about drug activity and violence, and a concern that the development would attract a population "similar to the one Prange Drive" — Cuyahoga Falls' only black neighborhood.

Despite the opposition, the City Council approved the site plan. Opponents then filed a formal request for a referendum.

In November 1996, Cuyahoga Falls voters passed the referendum, repealing the City Council ordinance approving the site plan.

Meanwhile, Buckeye had filed suit in state court, arguing that the Ohio Constitution does not permit referendums on purely administrative matters. Eventually, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional.

The city then issued the building permits, and Buckeye began construction of Pleasant Meadows.

While the state suit was still pending, Buckeye also filed suit in federal court against Cuyahoga Falls and several of its officials.

The foundation alleged that by allowing the voters to reject the building permit application, the city had violated the equal protection and due process — fair proceedings — clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the Fair Housing Act, which bans housing discrimination because of race.

Though a federal judge ruled for the city and its officials, a federal appeals court reversed. Cuyahoga Falls then asked the Supreme Court of the United States for review, and the justices heard argument last January.

Tuesday, the full Supreme Court reversed the appeals court in part.

In the unanimous opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that Buckeye had not presented proof of an equal protection claim that could survive a motion to dismiss.

Buckeye was claiming an injury from the process —not from the referendum itself, which never went into effect.

But in submitting the referendum to the public, O'Connor said, the city was just acting legally under its charter.

The city's refusal to issue a building permit while the referendum petition was pending also was a case of simply following the charter, she added.

"The subjection of the site-plan ordinance to the city's referendum process, regardless of whether that ordinance reflected an administrative or legislative decision, did not constitute per se arbitrary government conduct in violation of due process," O'Connor said.

The high court threw out the lower court ruling and sent the case back down for another hearing and a ruling based on Tuesday's Supreme Court opinion.

(No. 01-1268, Cuyahoga Falls et al vs. Buckeye et al.)

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