On November 25, 2014, District Judge Timothy Corrigan from the Middle District of Florida ruled in favor of Church of Our Savior in its religious land use lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The Court held that the City violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause when it twice denied conditional use permit applications submitted by the Church to operate in a residential zone, but granted permits for a Montessori school to operate in the same zone.
Church of Our Savior (the Church) is a Beaches area Anglican congregation that was founded in 2006. For the last few years, the Church has worshipped at a local historic chapel in Jacksonville Beach that it rents from the local historical society. Under the lease terms, the Church can only access the chapel for four (4) hours on Sunday plus specifically designated religious holidays. The logistical limitations of the historic structure prevent the Church from exercising a variety of religious tenets that are integral to the Anglican tradition. The chapel’s small size has also stalled the congregation’s growth. Recognizing the severity of these issues, the Church decided to search for available properties in the Beaches area on which it could build a more suitable, permanent worship facility.
In early 2012, the Church’s Pastor, David Ball, found what he perceived as an ideal property. The property consists of approximately 1.7 acres located along the six-lane commercial thoroughfare Beach Boulevard, just east of the intracoastal waterway (the Property). The Property is accessed directly via a frontage road off of Beach Boulevard, avoiding any need to travel through the residential area to the south and east of the Property. The Property is zoned RS-1, single family residential, which permits churches with approval of the City’s Planning Commission.
Feeling called to develop the Property for religious purposes, the Church submitted a conditional use permit (CUP) to the City. The City planner recommended the CUP be approved without any conditions. However, when the application went to the Planning Commission, neighborhood residents objected, primarily based on hypothetical parking and traffic concerns. Thereafter, the Planning Commission unanimously denied the application. Several months later, the Church submitted a second, slightly amended CUP application. Again, the City planner recommended the CUP be approved without conditions. Once again, when the Planning Commission heard the application, neighborhood residents raised essentially identical concerns. At the end of the hearing, a Commissioner moved to approve the Church’s CUP. Inexplicably, the entire Commission, including the Commissioner who initially moved to approve, voted against the motion and unanimously denied the Church’s application.
The Church next filed suit in federal court alleging the City’s actions violated RLUIPA. After conducting a bench trial before Judge Corrigan, the Court ruled that the City’s actions violated RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause. In support of this decision, the Court determined the Montessori school offered by the Church amounted to a valid similarly situated secular comparator. In 1994, the Montessori school applied for a CUP to construct a facility that would house 75-80 students on a parcel in the City that, like the Property, is zoned RS-1. After a public hearing at which certain residents raised concerns, including traffic, the Planning Commission unanimously granted the CUP. More significantly, the Montessori school submitted another CUP application in early 2014 while this case was pending. In this application, the school sought to build a two-story, 18,000 square foot structure that could house up to 175 additional students. The Planning Commission unanimously approved the school’s application with certain conditions related to vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
In its analysis, the Court paid particular attention to the similarities between the school’s applications and the Church’s application in determining the Montessori school was a similarly situated comparator for purposes of an as-applied Equal Terms claim. As the Court noted, both uses proposed similarly small, low-impact uses on RS-1 properties. The Church’s parcel was 1.7 acres while the Montessori school’s was 1.9 acres. Also, both properties were not in strictly single-family residential areas: the school was near a public works facility, mobile home park and retirement home, while the Property was near an amusement park and major commercial road. Further, both applicants faced neighborhood objections regarding traffic, neighborhood fit, and impact on property values. Finally, the City planner had recommended approval of both applicants’ CUP requests.
However, while the Planning Commission approved the Montessori school’s CUPs and continues to allow the school to operate as a conditional use in the RS-1 zone, the Commission twice denied the Church’s applications and continues to refuse to allow the Church to operate in the same zone. Moreover, the Court noted how the Commission approved the school’s most recent application subject to certain conditions, yet failed to even suggest similar conditions when considering the Church’s applications, even after the Church expressed a willingness to agree to such conditions on multiple occasions. Based on the City’s failure to explain the reason for this clearly differential treatment, the Court held the City’s actions amounted to a violation of RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause.
Still to be determined is the form of “appropriate relief” the Court will grant based on the Church’s success. The Court explained it plans to direct the City to grant the Church a CUP to operate at the Property, but also directed the parties to confer as to whether certain conditions on the Church’s use might be appropriate. We will be sure to post an update after this matter comes to a final resolution.