After years of protesting outside an east Charlotte abortion clinic, two Christian groups now have permission to use land next door to picket, signaling new momentum for the operation.
Flip Benham, a local preacher and a national figure in his opposition to abortion, calls the site “the gates of Hell.”
Benham is among those who regularly demonstrate outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center and hope to change the minds of women who arrive there. Demonstrations started more than 10 years ago but have picked up in frequency and size over the last several years.
“This abortion mill one day is going to come to an end,” Benham said. “Through us, God might breathe life and hope into the hearts of moms (who) are desperate.”
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This month, Benham watched progress on the recently purchased property as a crew cleared trees from the empty, 2-acre lot beside the clinic. The property was purchased in July for an undisclosed amount, public records show.
A limited liability company called Latrobe Drive LLC owns the land, according to real estate records. An attorney for the company said he was not authorized to answer the Observer’s questions about ownership of the LLC or whether the land was purchased specifically for the purpose of protesting the abortion clinic.
It’s unclear whether Latrobe Drive LLC plans to develop the land for commercial or business uses.
What is clear is that the spot is a strategic perch for demonstrators to point their speakers toward the clinic while avoiding the need for a city-approved sound permit.
Center director Calla Hales says she’s dealt with similar tactics before.
She also oversees an abortion clinic in Raleigh. There, the clinic is entangled in a zoning conflict with a religious group that wants to open an office and an ultrasound center next door, inside a mostly-residential area.
Hales says she supports free speech and protest rights of people who don’t want women to have abortions.
But abortion has been a lawful medical procedure in the United States since 1973 and Hales says protests in Charlotte have been escalating to the point of interfering with the exercise of patients’ rights.
She says she’ll “wait and see” what comes of the ministry groups occupying the lot next door.
Already, for several years, the clinic has hired its own security guards. And, every day, there are volunteers at the clinic who act as “defenders” and “escorts” to help women enter.
The defenders stand on the sidewalk and wave patients into the clinic parking lot, past the demonstrators. The escorts meet patients at their cars and shield them with large umbrellas.
“Abortion is not the right choice for everybody. But, (patients) deserve to make that choice without bullying,” Hales said.
From the main road, the east Charlotte business park looks like any other cluster of brick office buildings. But if you drive inside, put your car windows down, and listen — you’ll notice something’s different.
“Stop,” one man shouts as a car approaches the clinic. ”No! Stop, stop stop! No!”
“Please don’t go in there,” another man says loudly, talking to two people in a car whose windows are partially tinted and rolled up.
The car drives on past and the people inside barely look at the man holding a Bible. Pastor Dan Parks isn’t discouraged. He’s been preaching this message more than a decade.
“Abortion is murder in the eyes of God. Abortion has become a political thing — but it’s a human life thing,” says Parks, a pastor and the director for Cities for Life, an anti-abortion group.
Every day except Sunday, when the clinic is closed, ministry groups and a handful of other individual dissenters assemble with T-shirts and signs. A few times a year, there are large-scale marches. Love Life Ministries has a mobile ultrasound unit, similar to an RV, where women are invited aboard in an effort to dissuade them from having an abortion.
Parks says they often encounter expectant women and families who are homeless or can’t pay their bills. Cities For Life, he says, finds them financial help to support their decision to not have an abortion.
“We’re out here to offer hope and help to women coming in,” Parks says.
Hales says the activity is more harassing than helpful.
“We’re at the point now we have to have police presence,” she says.
No sound permit needed
Almost every day, Hales says, someone from the abortion clinic calls the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Their complaints range from noise ordinance violations to calling police if a person stands in the street, impeding traffic.
Officers have handed out a few citations — which the ministry groups have argued against in court — and the city does regulate sound permits. But activity mostly falls within the bounds of a person’s right of free speech.
Once, Hales asked the city to put up “No Parking” signs on the street in front of their building to prevent the ultrasound RV from sitting there all day. That request was denied.
Hales has also asked for a “quiet zone” or a buffer area for the clinic because she says protest activity often is so loud that patients and employees can hear it from inside the building. That too, has been unsuccessful.
Mostly, the clash between the clinic and the protesters plays out in daily wins or losses.
To block the view from the street, Hales planted a line of bushes and put up small privacy screens.
Every morning as protesters arrive, so do clinic volunteers who wear bright pink shirts and hold directional signs to help patients.
Still, sometimes a driver will roll their window down and accept a ministry brochure before pulling in the parking lot.
Then there’s the battle over who gets the daily sound permit.
Sometimes the clinic wins it, sometimes Cities For Life gets it.
Now it seems the ministry groups have secured a win on that front.
In Charlotte, demonstrators using private property aren’t required to get sound permits for public address systems. The police department says city law disallows “unreasonably loud and disturbing” noise. But Charlotte’s local noise ordinance is written in a way that protects residential areas from excessive sound, making it harder to enforce the law in commercial areas like a business park.
The leader of the business park’s owner association says his group can enforce rules and restrictions within the bounds of the park.
Workers in neighboring offices complain about the noise and the protests, says John Humphrey, with the owner’s association.
The association, he says, has no control over activity on public streets and sidewalks in front of the clinic. Private property purchased in the park falls under the association’s purview.
In those areas, Humphrey points out that a covenant on the land on Latrobe Drive prohibits activity that is “offensive or annoying to other owners.” The restrictions include “excessive omission of odors, dust, fumes, smoke, noise, or glare.”
“We have requested development plans and purposes from Latrobe Drive LLC, but as of today we have received no response,” Humphrey said.
Latrobe Drive LLC registered for the first time with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office on July 19, the same day the land was purchased beside the clinic, public records show.
Attorney Jason Oesterreich of Concord is listed as Latrobe Drive LLC’s registered agent.
In August, he sent a letter, provided to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, that grants permission to Love Life Ministries and Cities For Life to use the land for in-person speakers, amplified sound equipment and to play ministry music.
Oesterreich would not answer questions from the Observer.