Congratulations to our client and friends at Church of Our Savior in Jacksonville Beach, Florida on the October 22, 2017 grand opening of their new Church facility. The team at Dalton & Tomich, PLC is so very honored and happy to have had the opportunity to guide the Church through the RLUIPA litigation process.
This religious land use case was litigated by a team that included Dan Dalton, Kate Brink Harrison, Zana Tomich and Larry Opalewski, who with the extraordinary Charlie Stambaugh of Jacksonville, Florida, worked hard with the leadership team of Church of our Savior to secure the zoning to build a wonderful new Church. The litigation process spanned nearly half a decade of ups and downs, including a RLUIPA trial win in November 2014.
Church of Our Savior was founded in 2006 and worshiped in a historic wooden chapel it rented in Jacksonville Beach. The lease arrangement restricted when the Church could hold services and did not allow the Church to make necessary repairs or otherwise alter the chapel to fit its religious needs.
Because of these time and space constraints, the Church was forced to host religious events in various locations around town, including restaurants and members’ homes. The time constraints also prevented the Church from hosting weddings and funerals at the chapel, so members were forced to hold these events elsewhere. The logistical issues with the chapel space also hindered the Church’s ability to attract and welcome more members, which was essential to its religious mission.
To remedy these problems, the Church Vestry began to search for vacant land in Jacksonville Beach on which the Church could construct a house of worship that could house all of its activities in one location.
In early 2012, the Church located vacant property for sale at 2092 Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville Beach. The Property is accessible via the six-lane boulevard and is directly adjacent to Adventure Landing, an amusement park with water sports and mini golf.
The Church wanted to build a 7,400-square-foot, one-story structure on the Property. The structure would include a 200-person sanctuary and space for Church activities, including an outdoor children’s play area. This would alleviate the burden the Church faced of having to use and coordinate multiple different locations for its events.
The Property was zoned RS-1 Residential, though it had originally been zoned commercial. In fact, the Property was the only residentially zoned parcel on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville Beach—all other parcels were zoned commercially. The Property had been perpetually vacant since nobody was willing to build a commercial structure on a parcel adjacent to a six-lane highway and amusement park.
To operate in the RS-1 zone, the Church was required to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). In March 2013, the Church submitted its application to the Planning Department. The Planning Department confirmed the application met all requirements under the City Code and recommended the Planning Commission approve the CUP. However, when the Planning Commission heard the CUP application, it unanimously voted to deny the CUP.
After the denial, the City encouraged the Church to submit a second CUP. The Church submitted a new CUP application in September 2013, which the Planning Department again recommended be approved. Nonetheless, the Planning Commission once again unanimously denied the CUP application. Thus, the Church was effectively barred from using its property for religious purposes.
After the second denial, the Church filed a federal religious land use (RLUIPA) lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida in November 2013. In September 2014, the case went to trial before U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan and on November 25, 2014, Judge Corrigan ruled in favor of Church of Our Savior. In particular, Judge Corrigan found the City violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause when it denied both CUPs submitted by the Church, but allowed a Montessori school to operate in the same zone.
One of our favorite parts of the RLUIPA litigation we do is seeing our clients’ goals come to fruition. We’re proud of Church of Our Savior, its leadership and its congregation for enduring years of stress, delay and litigation to ultimately be able to build the church of their dreams.
We look forward to the day when other clients enjoy the same success: when North Jersey Vineyard Church completes a renovation of its new building in South Hackensack, New Jersey and when the Chabad of Northwest Connecticut secures its land use permits and renovates its building in Litchfield, Connecticut to have religious services on site.
If you’d like more information about Church of Our Savior and their beautiful new church, be sure to check out their website.
And if you wish to talk to a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC about your religious land use issue, please contact use at [email protected].