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RLUIPA’S Unreasonable Limitations and Total Exclusions provisions

The case of Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center, Inc. v. Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin is an interesting case involving, in part, RLUIPA’S least litigated claims: unreasonable restrictions and total exclusions.

Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center, Inc. (“Eagle”) sought to construct a year-round Bible camp on thirty-four acres of property surrounding Squash Lake in the Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin (“Woodboro”). Following the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Woodboro, Oneida County, and the Oneida County Board of Adjusters (collectively, “the County”), Eagle appealed, asserting that Woodboro and the County’s land use regulations violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and the Wisconsin Constitution.

In 1998, Woodboro adopted a Land Use Plan, which sought to “encourage low density single family residential development for its lake and river-front properties.” The plan incorporated a survey that found that the majority of Woodboro residents desired to maintain the town’s rural and rustic character. In 2009, Woodboro adopted a Comprehensive Plan that incorporated the aforementioned language. The zoning around Squash Lake reflects the goals set fort in the Comprehensive Plan: there are one-hundred seventy-seven parcels of real estate, and all but seven are zoned for single family uses. The seven parcels that are not zoned for single-family uses are zoned for business and were grandfathered into the zoning plan as pre-existing uses. On May 8, 2001, Woodboro voluntarily subjected itself to the Oneida County Zoning and Shoreland Protection Ordinance (“OCZSPO”), which established zoning districts throughout the County. Towns must elect to be subordinate to the OCZSPO’s provisions, and in doing so they relinquish zoning authority to the County. The subject property’s eastern parcels are zoned Single Family Residential and the western parcels are zoned Residential and Farming. As the OCZSPO states, “The purpose of the Single Family Residential District is to provide an area of quiet seclusion for families. This is the County’s most restrictive residential zoning classification. Motor vehicle traffic should be infrequent and people few.”

Petition for Rezoning and Conditional Use Permit

The OCZSPO does not permit year-round recreational camps in Single Family Residential zoning districts. Thus, in order to accomplish its goal, Eagle filed a petition with Oneida County to rezone the subject property from “Single Family Residential” to “Recreational.” The County then sent a copy of the rezone petition to Woodboro for its consideration, and beginning in 2006, Woodboro held a series of meetings regarding Eagle’s petition. After much discussion, Woodboro recommended that the County deny the petition, finding that the recreational camp was not consistent with the goals of maintain the “rural and rustic character” of Woodboro, and would conflict with the existing single-family development surrounding Squash Lake. Following this recommendation, the County denied the rezoning petition on the grounds that it would conflict with the Woodboro Land Use Plan.

In 2008, Eagle sought to obtain a conditional use permit (“CUP”), which would allow Eagle to construct its Bible camp without requiring rezoning of the subject property. Eagle attached an “Overall Site Plan” with the application, which included plans for a lodge in excess of 106,000 square feet. The proposed Bible camp would have a maximum capacity of 348 campers and also accommodate 60 people in outdoor camping sites. Woodboro recommended that the County deny the CUP application, stating that the Bible camp did not conform to the zoning goals in the district, and that the proposed use was incompatible with the single-family residential use of the adjacent land. The County Zoning Committee agreed and denied the CUP application. As a result, Eagle appealed to the Oneida County Board of Adjusters, which also found that the proposed use was impermissible. In March of 2010, Eagled filed an action in the United States District Court of the Western District of Wisconsin. However, the district court granted summary judgment for the County and Woodboro on all counts, and Eagle filed an appeal.

Total Exclusion Claim

On appeal, Eagle first argued that Woodboro had violated RLUIPA’s total exclusion provision, which prohibits governmental land use regulations from totally excluding religious assemblies from a jurisdiction. Eagle’s argument stems from the fact that year-round recreational camps are permitted throughout the County, but are prohibited within Woodboro’s borders. However, this argument was dependent on the assumption that Woodboro retained jurisdiction to implement land use regulations on the subject property. The court noted that jurisdiction requires that a municipality is able to exercise control or authority over a designated area. Although Woodboro did retain jurisdiction on numerous matters of local governance, Woodboro chose to be subordinate to Oneida’s zoning ordinance with the adoption of the OCZSPO, and thereby relinquished its jurisdiction over land use regulations to the County. To this point, Eagle argued that Woodboro’s implementation of the Land Use and Comprehensive Plans was proof that the town maintained sufficient control over zoning regulations. However, although Woodboro created the aforementioned plans, the plans were not binding on the County’s ultimate zoning decisions. Rather, whether or not the town approved of a change in zoning was only one of the factors considered by the County in issuing its decision. Thus, the court determined that Woodboro served a limited, consultative role in determining the town’s zoning regulations, and thus it was clear that the County, not Woodboro, exercised jurisdiction.

Therefore, the court held that Eagle’s total exclusion claim must fail because there was ample evidence on the record to suggest that a year-round Bible camp would be possible in many parts of Oneida County. In reaching its decision, the court cited to its decision Vision Church v. Village of Long Grove, in which the court held that the total exclusion provision of RLUIPA prohibits only “the complete and total exclusion of activity of expression protected by the First Amendment.” 468 F.3d 975, 989 (2006). Although Eagle’s year-round Bible camp would be prohibited in Woodboro, Eagle could construct such a camp on thirty-six percent of the land in Oneida County. Further, Eagle could construct another religious structure, such as a religious church or school, on the subject property. These facts lead the court to conclude that Eagle’s form of religious assembly had not been “totally exclude[d] . . . from [the] jurisdiction . . . .”

Substantial Burden and Free Exercise Claims

Eagle also sought relief under the substantial burden provision of RLUIPA, which requires land use restrictions on religious assemblies be in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and use the least restrictive means possible to achieve that interest. Accordingly, Eagle was required to show that the zoning in Oneida imposed a substantial burden on their exercise of religious rights and that the County did not have a compelling interest in creating that burden. A substantial burden under RLUIPA “is one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise . . . effectively impracticable.” Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 761 (2003). The burden must be truly substantial, to hold otherwise would permit religious organizations to supplant even facially-neutral zoning restrictions under the auspices of religious freedom. See Petra Presbyterian Church v. Village of Northbrook, 489 F.3d 846, 851 (7th Cir. 2007) (“Unless the requirement of substantial burden is taken seriously, the difficulty of proving a compelling governmental interest will free religious organizations from zoning restrictions of any kind.”)

Eagle admitted that there were four tracts of land, out of ten put forth by the County, which would be suitable for the proposed camp. Despite this admission, Eagle insisted that the camp must be built on the subject property. Therefore, according to the court, “[i]t [was] not the land use regulation that create[d] a substantial burden, but rather [Eagle’s] insistence that the expansive, year-round Bible camp be placed on the subject property.” See Petra, 489 F.3d at 851 (“When there is plenty of land on which religious organizations can build churches . . . in a community, the fact that they are not permitted to build everywhere does not create a substantial burden”). RLUIPA is meant to protect religious freedoms from impermissible land use regulations. Here, Eagle sought to use the Act as a way of circumventing a facially neutral zoning regulation: the OCZSPO. Eagle did not request relief from an unjust law or ordinance implemented by the County that inhibited their religious activity, rather, they sought special treatment on the basis of their religious purpose. However, the court in CLUB recognized that “no such free pass for religious land uses masquerades among the legitimate protections RLUIPA affords to free exercise.” 342 F.3d at 762.

Eagle also maintained that Woodboro and the County caused considerable delay, uncertainty, and expense in the execution of the rezoning application they submitted by leading Eagle to believe that its permit would be granted. Specifically, Eagle relies on Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Inc. v. City of New Berlin, 396 F.3d 895, 901 (7th Cir. 2005), which found a substantial burden under RLUIPA where there was considerable “delay, uncertainty and expense.” The court held that “[i]f a land-use decision . . . imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise . . . and the decision maker cannot justify it, the inference arises that hostility to religion, or more like to a particular sect, influence the decision.” Id. at 900. In New Berlin, however, there were indicia of bad faith by the city that lead the court to find no compelling governmental interest that the city could put forth to justify its substantial burden on the Church. Id. at 988 (“The repeated legal errors by the City’s officials cast doubt on their good faith”). The court noted that Eagle had spent considerable time and money on various applications during the rezoning process. However, these efforts did not constitute a substantial burden. See, e.g., CLUB, 342 F.3d at 761 (“That [Appellants] expended considerable time and money . . . does not entitle them to relief under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision”). Further, throughout the rezoning application process, the Town and County maintained their position that while religious exercise would be allowed on the subject property, they would not permit construction of a year-round recreational camp. The County exhibited a compelling government interest in preserving the rural and rustic character of the Town as well as the single-family development around Squash Lake. To do this, it zoned the area for single-family purposes four years before Eagle first sought to build a camp. Thus, “[t]he zoning regulations [did] not seek to inhibit Eagle’s religious activity; they merely encourage[d] an area of quiet seclusion for families around Squash Lake.” Thus, the court found that Eagle’s RLUIPA claim must fail, as Eagle was unable to establish that the County had inflicted a substantial burden on Eagle’s religious exercise.

Unreasonable Limitations Claim

Next, Eagle raised a claim under RLUIPA’s unreasonable limitation provision, which prevents the government from adopting policies that make it difficult for religious institutions to locate anywhere within the jurisdiction. Vision Church, 468 F.3d at 990; see also Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, 706 F.3d 548, 560 (4th Cir. 2013). Specifically, Eagle claimed that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether reasonable opportunities existed to build the Bible camp within the County. However, the court ultimately found that the evidence clearly suggested that the land use regulations in Oneida County did not “unreasonably limit[] religious assemblies, institutions, or structures[.]”[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(3)(B).

The court first noted that reasonableness is determined “in light of all the facts, including the actual availability of land and the economics of religious organizations.” While the OCZSPO had a neutral purpose in seeking to uphold the rural and rustic nature of the Town and surrounding areas, it nonetheless allows for religious assemblies throughout Oneida County and on the subject property. Eagle had a reasonable opportunity not only to seek rezoning and a conditional use permit, but also to look for other land within eh County that would serve its purpose. However, Eagle chose not to do so. Therefore, the court held that “[w]hile it may be said that Eagle’s insistence on a year-round Bible camp on the subject property without seeking alternatives is unreasonable, Oneida County’s zoning regulations that seek to preserve the character of the area . . . are not.”

Equal Terms Claim

Eagle further argued that the OCZSPO violated the equal terms provision of RLUIPA, which prevents governmental land use regulations that treat religious institutions on less than equal terms with similarly situated institutions that do not have a religious affiliation. “The equal-terms section is violated whenever religious land uses are treated worse than comparable nonreligious ones, whether or not the discrimination imposes a substantial burden on religious uses.” Digrugilliers v. Consol. City of Indianapolis, 506 F.3d 616, 616 (7th Cir. 2007). In determining whether a claim exists under the equal terms provision, the court must look to the zoning criteria rather than the purpose behind the land use regulation. River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest, Ill., 611 F.3d 367, 371 (7th Cir. 2010). “[I]f religious and secular land uses [] are treat the same from the standpoint of an accepted zoning criterion . . . that is enough to rebut and equal-terms claim[.]” Id. at 373.

While the Single Family Residential District permits certain religious and secular assemblies, recreational camps are prohibited outright, regardless of religious affiliation. The OCZSPO does not seek to treat religious land uses less favorably rather than their secular uses, rather, it seeks to ensure that the single-family environment around Squash Lake remains intact. To achieve this goal, the OCZSPO forbids year-round recreational camps outright. The court determined that because the OCZSPO treats religious and secular uses “the same from the standpoint of an accepted zoning criterion” this was enough “to rebut [Eagle’s] equal-terms claim[.]” Id.

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