In the past several months, we have found that the strategic use of the Religious Land Use and institutionalized Persons Act (also known as RLUIPA) can be used to successfully persuade members of a Planning Commission or Zoning Board of Adjustment / Appeals to approve religious uses. This is an important consideration as its use may lead to approvals for the religious entity without the need for federal court litigation. Consider the following:
- Summit Church of Bergan County, New Jersey. In this case, the Church sought to renovate its existing space and add approximately 2000 square feet onto its sanctuary. The addition triggered site plan review as the City of Hackensack Zoning Code provided that any expansion of the footprint of a building required site plan approval and approval with local zoning codes. This made the expansion of the footprint of any religious building in the City of Hackensack unattainable due to setback and parking requirements. Through both federal court litigation, and numerous appearances before the local Zoning Board of Adjustments, we were able to argue the application of RLUIPA to waive the setback requirements and the parking requirements of over 200 on site spaces.
- Chai Center of Bloomfield Township, Michigan. In this case, a small orthodox Jewish congregation sought to use a building that was owned and used as a Jewish Education Center for weekly religious services. While the property had enough on-site parking for the members, and additional off-site parking was secured for members, and, the members are orthodox and walk to services – thereby eliminating the need for onsite parking – the neighbors objected based on “parking concerns.” We appeared before the Bloomfield Township Zoning Commission, the Planning Commission and ultimately, the Township Board and persuaded all three Boards that RLUIPA’s substantial burden provisions would be violated if the application was denied.
- Tri City Chabad, Pleasanton California. The Chabad purchased a former fraternal organizations hall for use as a religious assembly use, a nursery school and an area to be used for community meals. At issue was the outdoor use of the property for a play area for the nursery school. The neighbors opposed the Chabad claiming that the noise of children playing would be “unbearable.” The City agreed with the neighbors and proposed a restriction of the outdoor area that would be large enough for children to walk single file around the building, but not play on the expanse of open area. We challenged the proposal and after negotiating with the City and the neighbors, formulated an agreed up play area for children.
- Jackson Classical Academy, Jackson, Wyoming. The City of Jackson, Wyoming has a very restrictive development code which several limits building any new buildings. As a result, the City is experiencing a housing crisis, as not enough affordable homes have been built, and the Jackson Classical Academy could not build a new campus on land it owned near it existing rented campus. Faced with shutting down the school due to pressure from its landlord, and the City refusing to work with the School for approvals, we argued RLUIPA to garner support for the new campus. After a significant amount of hearings, along with new state legislation, the site plan was approved and the school is operating in temporary facilities on its property until the new school is constructed.
- Morris Cerrullo Campus, San Diego, California. Morris Cerrullo, a dynamic evangelist in southern California, purchased the former Mission Valley Inn and sought to build a new campus for his ministry that incorporated biblical artifacts, training for new ministers and a guest area for visitors. While the proposed site plan met all zoning requirements, the City refused to approve the same based on its desire to have a commercial use on the property. We argued RLUIPA to the City Council, showing the religious nature of the use and ultimately, the City Council approved the site plan.
These few examples demonstrate the power of using experienced legal counsel focused on religious land use matters who can formulate the best arguments before local planning, zoning and City boards to secure approvals for religious uses. If your religious use requires planning and zoning approvals, please consider speaking with the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to guide you through the land approval process using RLUIPA for approvals.