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Expanding an Existing Building and RLUIPA

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on March 21, 2010 Category: Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions, RLUIPA

Many of the cases involving RLUIPA occur after a religious entity has been at a location for a period of time, has grown and now wants to expand. Does RLUIPA apply where a local government refuses to allow the expansion? The case law says yes.

In Church of the Hills of Township of Bedminster v. Township of Bedminster, 2006 WL 46274, D.N.J. Feb 24, 2006, the church sought expansion due to the space limitations of their current facility. The church was forced to hold two Sunday services, rather than one, and claimed the earlier service was limited by the time constraints of having to hold two services in a single day. Plaintiffs sought to expand the church’s current facilities in order to allow the entire congregation to attend a single service every Sunday. The church also sought to expand its facilities to provide a Sunday school for older youths, a religious library, a Christian bookstore, dedicated prayer rooms, a choir room, facilities for religious wedding services, and other facilities to accommodate its various ministries. Id. at *1.

The church sought a variance of the Township’s Floor Area Ratio to allow a 5.92% FAR and impervious coverage of 16.39%, while the zoning regulations limited it to 3% total FAR, 5% impervious coverage limit and a 10 acre minimum lot-size requirement. Id. The board denied the application for variance citing numerous reasons including increased traffic, light, and noise pollution, a negative impact on the visual landscape of the township, that it was out of proportion with the neighborhood, and the expansion’s adverse impacts on aquifer and surface quality due to impervious coverage. Id. at *2. Notably, the church survived summary judgment on the substantial burden claim that it was prevented from worshiping together as one congregation, with the Court highlighting that

[t]he need for religious institutions to have the ability to develop “a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements” is at the heart of the RLUIPA’s land-use provisions.

Id. at *5 (citing 146 CONG. REC. S7774-01, 7774 (daily ed. July 27, 2000) (Joint Statement of Sen. Hatch and Sen. Kennedy on RLUIPA)).

This same line of reasoning can be found in Cottonwood Christian Center v. Cypress Redevelopment Agency, 218 F. Supp. 2d 1203 (C.D. Cal. 2002), where the owner of the property sought to build a church facility which would include a 4,700 seat auditorium and surrounding buildings for use in its ministries. Churches were a permitted in the zoning district pursuant to a Conditional Use Permit. Cottonwood had overgrown its Los Alamitos site which could only accommodate 700 attendees at one time. Id. at 1210-12. In analyzing the church’s challenges under RLUIPA, the Court found that the church was unable to practice its religious beliefs in its current location. Id. at 1226. The current facility could not handle the congregation’s large and growing membership and its small quarters prevented Cottonwood from meeting as a single body. The court stated that “[p]reventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion. Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If Cottonwood could not build a church, it could not exist.” Id.

The court cited relied on the Ninth Circuit opinion in Bryant v. Gomez, 46 F.3d 948, 949 (9th Cir. 1995), where the it stated that a substantial burden on a person’s religious freedom is placed on him or her when the government’s action “prevent[s] him or her from engaging in conduct or having a religious experience which the faith mandates.” Id. at 1227. The court found that Cottonwood demonstrated that meeting in one location at one time, as well as providing numerous ministries, is central to its faith. Id. Beyond the fundamental need to have a church, Cottonwood had shown a religious need to have a large multi-faceted church. In its final point, the court thought it was “worth noting that the prohibition is against “substantially” burdening religious exercise, and therefore a question of degree. The burden on two people is not so great as the burden on more than 4,000 Cottonwood members and their families.” Id.

In sum, RLUIPA does apply to the expansion of existing locations in addition to new locations. There are many factors leading to the decisions noted above, so it is important that you consult with your land use attorney before you begin the expansion process.

Regards, Dan

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