An abortion clinic in Bristol is “getting busier all the time” and is here to stay — regardless of the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the building’s owners to get her out, owner Diane Derzis said.
The suit, which was filed in December, asks that the clinic’s lease agreement be terminated and alleges that the building’s owners were misled about the services that would be provided.
Derzis denies that, saying she never hid the fact that abortions would be performed there. She is asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, saying the owners waited six months and accepted two lease payments before filing the lawsuit.
A motions hearing set for Monday in Bristol Circuit Court was continued and no new date has been set. Derzis’ attorney, Alexis Tahinci, said the hearing will focus on motions she filed in answer to the lawsuit, including a motion to dismiss.
Jeffrey Campbell, attorney for building owners Chase King and Chadwick King and their company, Kilo Delta, did not respond to requests for comment.
Late last week, Derzis said she is committed to remaining in the building off Gate City Highway in north Bristol, and committed to staying in Bristol in general.
“You know if it [the lawsuit] were to go the other way, I’d just find another building. … But I don’t intend to lose,” said Derzis, a Virginia native who now lives in Alabama.
The facility, Bristol Women’s Health, is the only abortion clinic in the region. It has drawn national and international attention since a longtime clinic that performed abortions on the Tennessee side of town closed and Bristol Women’s Health opened about a mile away in Bristol, Virginia, in anticipation of tightening abortion laws in Tennessee.
The clinic’s lease started June 1. On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that struck down Roe v. Wade, which had made access to an abortion a federal right in the U.S. for 50 years. That allowed individual states to curtail or ban abortions.
The ruling meant that Tennessee’s “trigger law” took effect in August, resulting in a nearly total ban on abortions, while abortions remain legal in Virginia. Efforts by Virginia Republicans to ban most abortions after 15 weeks during the recent General Assembly session were not successful.
Nearly 10 months after the Supreme Court decision, its ramifications continue to affect Southwest Virginia and Bristol, known as the Twin City because half is in Virginia and half in Tennessee.
Worried about the possibility of additional abortion clinics moving in, leaders in Bristol and neighboring Washington County considered using zoning to keep them out. Although such a measure was approved in February in Washington County, where there are currently no abortion clinics, the ordinance discussed in Bristol stalled and appears to be going nowhere.
If it had been approved in Bristol, that measure likely would have kept Derzis from moving or expanding. It now appears that nothing would prevent her from moving the clinic, which only performs abortions — both medical and surgical — and offers birth control.
Seeing continued growth
Derzis, 69, is not new to the abortion fight. In addition to the clinic in Bristol, she owns four others, including a new one that is now opening in Chicago. The others are in Columbus, Georgia; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Richmond.
She also owned the clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, that was at the center of the landmark Dobbs case.
And she said she plans to open additional abortion clinics in other areas where they are needed.
“We intend to do more because as long as these states keep passing these laws, and women are needing the services, we’re going to make sure they are there,” she said.
At Bristol Women’s Health, two additional doctors who regularly come in from outside the area have been hired, bringing its total to three, according to Derzis.
“Things are looking very positive and the staff there is just wonderful,” she said.
The number of patients has been climbing, she added, and most are coming from other states, including Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and Texas.
Recently, a woman from Jackson, Mississippi, came to Bristol for an abortion, said Derzis, who added that women who have to travel to get an abortion can often get help with transportation and finances.
As happened when the clinic was on the Tennessee side of town, abortion protesters continue to regularly protest outside the clinic, but Derzis notes that clinic supporters also turn out.
Derzis said she spent a lot of money getting the building in shape to open because it hadn’t been used for several years. All of the improvements were approved by the owners, she said.
There are only two more months left on the one-year lease. If Derzis prevails or if the lawsuit isn’t settled by then, she said she fully intends to exercise the renewal options on the commercial lease agreement, which states she has the option to lease for a second year with no rent increase, followed by two three-year options with renewal terms at a 5% annual rent increase.
Banning abortion clinics through zoning
In recent months, local officials in Bristol and in Washington County looked to zoning to try to keep additional facilities that perform abortions from moving in, although there was no indication that others were interested.
Both efforts were aided by the Family Foundation, a Richmond-based conservative, anti-abortion organization, although it appears that the group was far more involved in Bristol.
The foundation drafted a proposed amendment to Bristol’s zoning ordinance that would have prohibited any new abortion clinics from opening and would have kept the existing one from changing or expanding.
It was discussed at the Oct. 25 Bristol City Council meeting. Prior to the meeting, the foundation organized a rally outside that drew about 100 people, including abortion rights activists.
In front of a capacity crowd, about 25 people, some not from Bristol, voiced their opinions on the zoning change, and the vast majority supported it. Talking points were provided by the foundation.
The council unanimously approved the resolution, with the understanding that City Manager Randy Eads, who’s also the city attorney, would review the measure to make sure it complied with state law. It would then go to the city’s planning commission.
Since then, however, the measure appears to have died. It hasn’t appeared on the agenda of either the planning commission or council.
Asked about the status of the resolution recently, Mayor Neal Osborne said it hasn’t come back up — and isn’t likely to.
“So, as you know, in Virginia, these things have to go through the planning commission,” he said. “That’s how these zoning ordinances have to happen. So the planning commission has decided they’re not taking it up. From my understanding, I don’t think there’s a lot of desire to discuss it, so they’re not taking it up. So unless they bring us some type of option, we’re not going to have it on our agenda as any kind of action item.”
Osborne said he has heard nothing about any additional abortion clinics interested in locating in the city.
As for the legal opinion offered by Eads, the mayor didn’t want to discuss specifics, but he did mention the Dillon Rule, which essentially states that local governments only have the powers expressly granted by the state.
“At the state level, women have access to abortion rights and to those services, so that’s not something that generally you would think the locality could legally find ways to limit,” he said.
Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who has written extensively on the Dillon Rule, said his view is that such zoning ordinances could run into problems with the rule, particularly if they do not apply to all similarly situated medical facilities, but only to those that perform a certain medical procedure.
“Because these ordinances appear to regulate a medical procedure as opposed to the use of land, they would not fall into local government’s general grant of authority to adopt zoning laws,” he said.
The Dillon Rule was also mentioned Feb. 14 in Abingdon, when the Washington County Board of Supervisors took up a zoning ordinance change aimed at keeping abortion clinics out of the county. Several of those opposing the measure cited the rule and said that if the board approved the ordinance, it could result in lawsuits.
Others spoke about women’s rights and pointed to the need for abortion in cases of sexual assault, while many of those who spoke in favor cited the Bible and their faith, stating again and again their belief that abortion is morally wrong.
After a sometimes-emotional three-hour public hearing that drew 43 speakers — 23 of them who opposed the change — supervisors approved the revision 5-2.
The revised ordinance cites as the reason for the change the “profound moral and political debate” associated with abortion, and the need to “avoid conflict between nearby uses of property and to promote creation of harmonious community.”
The ordinance doesn’t ban abortion clinics outright. But it places such significant restrictions on them that even the county administrator couldn’t explain to a board member just where a clinic can legally operate.
According to the new ordinance, an abortion clinic can’t open within 1,500 feet of a church, a school, a government facility, a hotel, a library or a park — or within 1,500 feet of any area zoned for residential, industrial or agricultural uses.
When Phillip McCall, one of the two supervisors who voted against the measure, said that people were confused about where a clinic could open, County Administrator Jason Berry acknowledged that it’s a difficult question to answer.
He said that the ordinance was modeled after one dealing with suboxone clinics, which provide medication to those struggling with opioid addictions. One person was interested in opening a suboxone clinic in the county, he said, but after two years, no one has found a location that would allow it.
Several telephone calls to Berry over recent weeks seeking comment about the ordinance were not returned. Board Chairman Saul Hernandez was reached by email but declined to answer questions sent to him at his request. County Attorney Lucy Phillips has since retired.
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, said she’s disappointed that Bristol’s measure — which she said was clearly popular among many of its residents — has gone nowhere.
The foundation did help Washington County officials with the wording of their ordinance and anything else they needed, she said.
“Yeah, we were thrilled to see Washington County move forward and we hope that encourages Bristol that they, too, should in fact move forward,” she said.
On the other hand, Geri Greenspan, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said in response to Washington County’s approval of the zoning ordinance: “This ordinance seeks to push access to reproductive healthcare further away from rural communities — communities that already face substantial burdens to accessing care. All Virginians should have safe and legal access to life-saving healthcare, including abortion and other reproductive healthcare.”