Last week, Dalton & Tomich attorneys secured a legal settlement that allows their client, North Jersey Vineyard Church (“Vineyard”), to operate a church in a long-vacant office space right outside New York City.
Under the terms of the settlement, Vineyard can use the vacant office space (“Property”) to host worship services, as well as offer counseling services, weddings, funerals, Bible study courses, youth group events, and a food pantry. Vineyard will also receive a monetary settlement payment.
The settlement agreement ends the years-long litigation between Vineyard and the Township of South Hackensack (“Township”). Vineyard initially filed suit against the Township in December 2014 after its Planning Board denied Vineyard’s request for a variance to use the Property as a house of worship. At that time, the Mixed Use zone where the Property is located did not permit houses of worship. Vineyard’s lawsuit alleged the Planning Board’s denial violated RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution.
Several months later, Vineyard agreed to settle the lawsuit when the Township agreed to amend its zoning ordinance to permit houses of worship as of right in the Mixed Use zone and to provide a parking ratio for houses of worship—1 parking space for every 2 sanctuary seats—that Vineyard could easily satisfy.
After the case settled, Vineyard still needed to go through the formality of obtaining site plan approval from the Township. Based on the Township’s assurances that it satisfied zoning and parking requirements, Vineyard purchased the Property for $3,000,000, subleased its existing worship space, and prepared and submitted its application for site plan approval.
In August 2015, five hours before the Planning Board was scheduled to hear the site plan application, the Township Planner told Vineyard for the first time that its site plan was deficient by 116 parking spaces. Instead of following the new parking ratio, the Township told Vineyard it had to provide 1 space for every 2 sanctuary seats in addition to dozens more spaces for space outside the sanctuary. However, the Township Traffic Engineer and another Planner both testified that Vineyard’s plan provided adequate parking without the additional 116 spaces. Vineyard also learned around this time the Township was working to condemn the Property in order to redevelop the area for commercial use. After months of postponements and delays, in November 2015 the Planning Board voted to deny Vineyard’s site plan.
In response to the denial, Vineyard filed suit a second lawsuit against the Township in December 2015. The second lawsuit alleged the Planning Board’s most recent actions violated RLUIPA and the U.S Constitution. After months of negotiations, earlier this month the Township Board approved the settlement agreement and Vineyard’s site plan. This approval effectively ends the litigation and, most importantly, allows Vineyard to begin using the Property immediately.
We congratulate Vineyard Church on their resoluteness during the lengthy litigation process and are so happy for them and their new spiritual home. If you represent a religious institution and are facing a similar issue, we’d be happy to speak with you to see how we can help.