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Trends in Parking Reforms Could Benefit Churches and Other Religious Assemblies

Minimum off-street parking requirements have been around for decades. Their purpose is to alleviate traffic congestion as well as reduce street and spillover parking. While these goals are laudable, minimum parking requirements have also caused many problems. They have greatly increased the cost of development and upped the risk of flooding due to the impervious nature of pavement. Many communities are now blighted by a sea of unused parking lots.

Religious assembly uses, like churches and synagogues, have also been burdened by heightened off-street parking requirements. Typically, a zoning ordinance will require a religious assembly to provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces that is tied to the number seats in the main sanctuary or worship space. While some communities may require one space for every six seats, others require one space for every three seats. It is also not uncommon for cities to impose greater parking restrictions on religious assemblies than are imposed on nonreligious assemblies—even though this unequal treatment is unlawful. As a result, a sanctuary with just 225 seats could require a 75-space parking lot. And when a single parking space can cost over $15,000 to develop in some communities, it is easy to see how off-street parking requirements can make it effectively impracticable to establish a new church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

Fortunately, there are number of trends and parking reforms that may benefit religious assemblies. The first trend is the growing number of cases in which the courts have held that the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) not only provides a religious assembly the right to be treated on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies when it comes to parking requirements but also protects the right of religious assemblies to use their parking lots in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Dalton & Tomich recently secured a federal court order protecting a Florida church’s right to use their available parking to freely serve and minister to the general public.

Another trend is the growing movement to eliminate parking minimums altogether. Communities in Washington, Massachusetts, California, Kentucky, and Minnesota have all moved to substantially reduce or completely do away with off-street parking requirements. These reforms are often fueled by a desire to increase the availability of affordable housing and other developments which are so often frustrated by the cost of satisfying off-street parking requirements.

In California, a bill was just introduced that would religious assemblies and other nonprofits to use their extra land and relatively unused parking lots to provide affordable housing. The bill would make it harder for municipalities to deny housing projects and development of on land own by religious groups.

As local governments across the country entertain off-street parking reforms, it is important for religious assemblies to be aware of their rights under both state and federal law. If your religious assembly is struggling with off-street parking requirements or wants to explore ways to better use its existing space, please contact us at Dalton & Tomich.

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