Funeral home sues city

Published 9:16 am Friday, December 22, 2017

Owner says business being targeted

An Ironton funeral home owner is suing the city, claiming he and his business are being targeted unfairly because he is part of Lawrence County’s first gay couple to get married.

Eugene Brown, owner of Brown Funeral Chapel, is suing the city, the city’s Building Department, Ironton Mayor Katrina Keith, the Ironton City Council and the Lawrence County Health Department. The suit was filed in the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court on Dec. 5 and asks for a jury trial.

The Brown Funeral Chapel is located at 2427 South 11th St. in Ironton, in what was once the Ironton Christian Baptist Church. The business was issued a certificate of use and occupancy for the property on July 11, 2010, for use as funeral home.

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In August 2015 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay marriages are legal in any state in the country, Brown and Carl Ray Taylor were issued the first marriage license in Lawrence County and southern Ohio.

The lawsuit says that on or around Sept. 27, Keith attempted to contact Brown about alleged zoning issues concerning the funeral chapel and that prior to that time; no one had raised issue about zoning.

A lawyer for Brown contacted the Building Department about the issues. In response, the office wrote the funeral home was zoned as R-1, which is the most restrictive zoning in the city regarding businesses. Brown was told he had to cease operations at once.

On Dec. 1, an official with the department presented Brown with an official mandate to cease and desist with a threat of monetary fines if continued to operate the funeral home. The lawsuit said the mandate came during a time when the business was doing a funeral.

Bob Anderson, the legal counsel for the city and its departments, said that he could not comment on the lawsuit because it was pending litigation.

He could say that R-1 is the most restrictive zoning in the city that does not allow a funeral home.

“There is no provision for that,” he said.

According to 1258.01 of the Ironton code, the purposes of the Residence R-1 Single-Family District is “to encourage the establishment and preservation of residential neighborhoods characterized by single-family buildings on medium and larger than medium sized lots and to preserve undeveloped lands for similar types of residential development by permitting a minimum of auxiliary nonresidential uses.”

Among the non-residential uses that are allowed are churches and synagogues and buildings related to those, swimming pools, parks, playgrounds, golf courses, country clubs, community centers, general farming, bed and breakfasts, and health care facilities.

There are six counts to Brown’s lawsuit which are that the defendants interfered in the operation of the funeral home by sending repeated cease and desist requests despite having failed to do that in the prior seven years, that the Lawrence County Building Department made reckless and/or fraudulent misrepresentations when they certified the description of the property as use for a funeral home and that Brown has suffered economic and emotional damage because of that certification.

The counts are also that Brown had operated the funeral home at that location for years without any zoning issues being raised and that in September, he was summoned to the Mayor’s office and contacted by the building department about these issues and the lawsuit said the defendants were acting in concert to force him out of his present location because of his sexual orientation, or for other unlawful reasons, and that entails a civil conspiracy. The suit says that it is a civil rights violation and deprivation of due process of the law because they were depriving him of federal rights, property interests based on his sexual orientation.

The fifth count is that the two parts of the Ironton Planning and Zoning codes are unconstitutional under the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions as to not permitting funeral homes to operate in an R-1 district.

The suit says that the actions of the defendants have caused emotional distress in the form of potential loss of Brown’s livelihood and other mental trauma and that the defendants acted in consortium.

The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction for the funeral home to continue operations during the court case since it would negatively impact business to be closed down.

The lawsuit asks for a declaratory judgment that the city is stopped from bringing any complaints, citations or other actions against the funeral home, that Brown can continue to operate the funeral home at its current location and that the zoning codes are declared unconstitutional. It also asks for judgment against the defendants for damages in excess of $25,000 plus court costs and any other additional relief the court deems proper.