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How a local Church won a religious land use / RLUIPA case and re-established a relationship with a local community

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on September 5, 2018 Category: Equal Terms, Land Use and Zoning, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases, Substantial Burden

The Aspen Times reported today about the impact of a religious land use case litigated by Daniel Dalton a decade ago and the relationship between the church, Grace Church of the Roaring Fork, and Pitken County, Colorado.

The story highlights the positive impact of the church in the community and how both have worked hard to repair a relationship ruptured by litigation.

The report provides as follows:

Pitkin County government and Grace Church in Emma — former foes in a land-use battle that landed in federal court — are taking a final step in their reconciliation.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has a contract to purchase 10 acres of undeveloped land for $600,000 from the congregation, which is formally known as Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley.

It’s the classic win-win situation, according to officials with both entities. Pitkin County gains productive agricultural land, while the church enhances its financial security.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend completing the purchase. The county commissioners will consider the proposal next week.

If the sale is approved, Pitkin County will acquire an L-shaped piece of ground to the south and west of Grace Church, which is located across Highway 82 from the Old Emma Store and west of the Emma one-room schoolhouse.

“It will go straight into our agricultural land leasing property,” Dale Will, acquisition and special projects director for the open space program, said of the 10 acres. “It doesn’t get any better than Emma for climate and water.”

The property has a senior right on the Home Supply Ditch, one of oldest in the valley. The farmland will blend well with its surroundings. Two Roots Farm leases land by the schoolhouse for its vast gardens. Other land in the area was conserved and leased for pasture and hay production.

“There could be this amazing renaissance of Emma,” Will said.

For the congregation, the sale will allow the expansion of its programs in pursuit of its mission, Pastor Luke Miedema said.

“For us it’s a no-brainer,” he said of the sale.

The church’s mission is to love God, love one another and love your community, he noted. The sale will benefit the community by providing additional farmland. The congregation will benefit by reducing its debt and expanding its programs. The church retains 7.5 acres, which will allow it to pursue various activities and buildings already in its county-approved master plan on a smaller footprint of land.

Will and elders in the congregation negotiated the contract. Pitkin County agreed to limit activities on the 10 acres to crop production or grazing. It can’t have a feedlot or other intensive agricultural uses that would affect “the pastoral setting,” Will said. The county also agreed to keep the south view plane from the church to upper Capitol Peak intact.

Will said he sees a symbiosis between farming and spirituality. Miedema concurred.

“We can eat local and worship local,” he said.

Relations between the county and congregation weren’t always so congenial. The church, which used to be known as Basalt Bible Church, acquired the Emma property, then a sheep ranch, in 2003 from Jack Gredig and his family. It applied to build a 15,000-square-foot church but was opposed by the Emma Caucus and some neighboring property owners.

The Pitkin County commissioners denied the application in 2005 and the church responded with a lawsuit the following year. The church alleged the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The lawsuit was settled in June 2008 with the county granting approval for the church and paying it nearly $675,000. In return, the church dropped part of the lawsuit, while a judge later decided the church wasn’t entitled to additional damages.

That’s all water under the bridge. “We love the relationship with Pitkin County Open Space,” Miedema said.

The church was constructed in 2008. It’s a nondenominational Protestant congregation. Miedema said it has grown from 35 to 40 members when he arrived in December to 80 to 100 members now. He looks forward to growing it further and recently discovered an encouraging sign.

In the book “Images of America: Basalt,” by Bennett Bramson, there is an image of the deed for 155.60 acres in the Emma area from the U.S. government to Gustavius Grace. Although Grace Church has no connection to the homesteader, the coincidence of building on land first owned by someone named Grace is a good sign the congregation is located where it belongs, Miedema said

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