Just before Christmas, a federal appeals court turned down a San Diego church’s suit against county zoning authorities, alledging violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institionalized Persons Act, a law adopted in 2000 with the sponsorship of Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy.
Guatay Christian Fellowship had been using a former recreational building on the property of a trailer court since 1986, when a Notice of Violation was issued in 2008. The church claimed that county zoning regulations were being enforced in violation of constitutional and statutory rights, including provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
This law forbids total exclusion from or unreasonable limits on religious assembly, substantial burdens on religious exercise, and imposing requirements on religious organizations that are not imposed on non-religious uses. The federal district court found this claim was “not ripe for review” because the church had failed to apply for the required land use permit.
District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller observed that the county might grant the permit, in which case there would be no violation of RLUIPA. This is a standard principle of restraint in federal courts: states and local government should have the opportunity to apply their laws in a constitutional manner, before anyone goes to federal court claiming a constitutional violation.
According to the history of the suit, summarized by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the church was founded by Pastor Stan Peterson and his wife Brenda in 1986. At first services were held in the Peterson home. As the membership grew, they moved to, and renovated, a recreation building on the grounds of Pine Valley Trailer Park in Guatay, an unincorporated area of the county.
Pastor Peterson and church secretary Cheryl Rice testified that the building had been in filthy, dilapidated conditions, full of junk, and the church had completed many repairs, including refinishing the walls. Repairs completed over the next twenty years included “replacing roofs, enlarging an existing bathroom, erecting a parking barrier, painting inside and out, paving the parking lot area, and pouring cement for a basketball court. The church also installed air conditioning, heating units, drywall, lighting systems, a new electrical system, sound-proofing, a sound system, and new flooring.”
County regulations require use permits for religious assembly in most residential zones and in seven of twelve commercial zones. There were various discussions over the years with county zoning officials, none resulting in either a permit application, or enforcement action, until 2008. In an April 2008 Notice of Violation to the mobile home park’s owner, the county noted, among many unrelated violations, that the recreation hall had been “illegally converted for use as a church.”
The greatest burden for the church was the scope of the county’s intended review. The church had already corrected the eight most serious code violations identified in a county inspection in 2008, and was permitted by the federal court to resume use of the building, when the county sent a letter setting forth project issues and public reviews required before it would issue a Use Permit. On top of $14,597 already submitted for permit fees, the letter estimated an additional $35,653 in fees. The church retained an expert, who estimated the total costs to get through complying with all tests would by between $214,250 and $314,250, requiring between fourteen months and three years to complete.
The district court found the “tone” of the NOV “unfortunate” but denied a motion for partial summary judgment, on the ground that the church must first determine whether the county would issue a Use Permit. Acknowledging the burden of the costs involved, the court noted local procedures for “quickly and inexpensively” challenging the requirements laid out in the county’s letter, thereby reducing the costs of hearing, inspection and compliance. The appeals court agreed.