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Top 5 Things Religious Assemblies and Schools Need to Know About Zoning in Illinois

Written by Noel Sterett on August 19, 2020 Category: Illinois Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions, RLUIPA

A 2019 report ranked Illinois as the seventh most religiously diverse state in the country. This is a ranking the state should celebrate. Religious diversity is not only a national hallmark but a benefit to our local communities.  Our communities are stronger when we are all free to worship and teach our children in accordance with our diverse faiths.

With the increase in religious diversity comes an increase in the number of religious groups looking for a place to worship, educate their children, and live out their beliefs. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and religious schools of every size and stripe need a place to call home. They need property and buildings sufficient to meet their unique needs. This need has only increased as a result of the pandemic induced school closures. An increasing number of parents are withdrawing their children from public schools and looking to enroll them in private, religious school alternatives. But in many communities there is often a lack of available property and space. And even when religious groups find a property, they all too often find that their intended use is barred by a zoning code.

The story is all too common. After a long and difficult search, a religious group, ministry or school finds a perfectly suitable property. It fits their budget and meets their needs. They do their due diligence and have the building inspected. But they either fail to do their due diligence when it comes to zoning or fail to understand what rights they may have under state and federal law to challenge unlawful zoning restrictions and denials. In either case, the result can be devastating beyond just the financial toll it takes. In some cases, a failed property purchase can even be the death knell for the religious institution as members lose confidence in the leadership, tire of the search for a property, or run out of funds.

To avoid such devastating results and increase the likelihood of finding the right property, here are five things every religious assembly, school and institution should know about zoning in Illinois:

  1. Know your zoning restrictions before you contract for the purchase or lease of a property. Almost every municipality in Illinois has a zoning code which restricts how a property can be used. While many zoning codes are posted online, some of them are not posted or not up-to-date. There have even been reported cases in which zoning officials have given religious institutions incorrect zoning opinions. This is why it is critical for religious institutions to hire an experienced attorney who can help locate and interpret the zoning code and handle communications with municipal officials.
  2. Know your rights before you contract for the purchase of a property. There are federal and state laws which provide heightened protections for religious institutions in Illinois. For example, the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”) is a federal law that protects religious assemblies and institutions in the land use context. There are many zoning codes which are not RLUIPA compliant and may unlawfully prohibit a religious group from locating where they have a right to locate. Illinois also has its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act which protects religious groups from government actions which substantially burden religious exercise. If you or your attorney do not understand what rights you may have under these laws, you may lose out on a property or opportunity that the municipality has no business keeping you from.
  3. Know how to protect yourself in a real estate contract or lease. When religious institutions contract for the purchase or lease of a particular property, it may be necessary to include a zoning contingency in the contract. A zoning contingency allows the religious institution to seek any zoning or land use approvals before they close on the property or get out of a lease if a municipality does not permit the use. Such contingency clauses allow the religious institution to walk away from the deal if they fail to obtain the necessary zoning approvals. Without a zoning contingency, the religious institution assumes the risk of acquiring a property that it may not be able to use for its religious purposes. Buyers should be aware of what zoning approvals they need and how long it may take to obtain them so that the appropriate zoning contingency can be included in the contract. Unfortunately, some zoning approvals take months to obtain, and sellers are not always inclined to wait for a buyer to obtain them.
  4. Know the politics of zoning. Zoning decisions can often come down to pure politics. If your intended use requires some form of discretionary zoning approval like a special use permit, you need to be prepared for the politics that are often in play. Neighbors may not want a religious assembly or school next to them. City officials may not want to lose another property to a not-for-profit entity that is likely to take the property off the tax rolls. If the property is in a particular alderman’s or city council member’s district, their opinion about your plans may carry a lot of weight before a plan commission or zoning board. In Chicago, for example, alderman have long enjoyed what is called aldermanic privilege which essentially allows an alderman to block land use developments in their ward. This “privilege” has a long history of abuse, and it has been used to exclude new or disfavored religious institutions.
  5. Know and count all the costs before you proceed. Because zoning is often an issue that religious institutions have to address whenever they buy or lease a new property, it is important to account and budget for the additional cost of hiring an experienced attorney and the cost of going through a zoning approval process. Municipalities often impose conditions on zoning approvals that require significant expenditures for such things as an expanded parking lot or landscaping. All of these potential costs should shape what the religious institution is willing to pay for the property. There have been many religious institutions which have run out funds and been saddled with an unusable, abandoned or half-completed building or project.

Free Church Land Use and Zoning Guide

Have you recently purchased a building or land and discovered you can’t use it because it isn’t zoned for religious assembly or a school? Learn how to navigate the process and win the right to use your property .

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