Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 1, 2010

Federal District Court in Colorado Dismisses Multiple RLUIPA Claims

At issue was a parcel of land the plaintiff, Grace Church of Roaring Fork Valley, bought in the town of Basalt, which was designated by the County as AFR-10, which permitted agricultural, forestry and residential uses, with a minimum lot size of 10 acres.  The purpose of the zone district was to preserve agriculture, wildlife and the scenic quality of the area while allowing single family and customary uses.  For the granting of a special use permit, the Code requires the Down Valley Comprehensive Plan (Plan), adopted by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in 1987, be reviewed at as well.  This plan stated as its objective to preserve high priority land, specifically the valley in which the plaintiff’s parcel was located, as development could “severely degrade these recourses and should be avoided.”  The BOCC did not approve the Special Review Request by the plaintiff, as the property use would not satisfy the issues and concerns of the area, primarily the preservation of scenic resources, and also because of the town of Basalt’s recommendation of denial.

The plaintiff’s first claim was that Basalt and the BOOC were liable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) for causing delay in the religious use of the property.  Throughout the duration of the litigation, settlements and payments were made, and other corrective actions were taken by Basalt and the BOCC.  Furthermore, Basalt and the BOCC denied the plaintiff’s application as the codes tried to avoid development in this area.  The court felt that Congress, when enacting RLUIPA, did not intend to impose such liability.

The court then addressed the second claim, that the BOCC violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision.  The court determined the plaintiff’s evidence showed no substantial burden as the decision did not prohibit religious practices in the county, nor were the plaintiffs pressured to change their beliefs.  All the BOCC did was state that this particular parcel was not suited for such use, which was appropriate.

The plaintiffs then claimed the BOCC violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision.  Under this provision, the plaintiff must show similarly situated nonreligious comparators were treated differently under the regulation.  The court found that the proffered evidence did not support the claim for numerous reasons including: the other uses were not similar, in different areas, different zone districts, the Plan was not yet in effect, or the BOCC had no role in the granting of the permits.  Thus the plaintiff’s failed to satisfy the requirements.

The fourth claim brought by the plaintiffs alleged that the BOCC implemented the Code in a discriminatory manner. The court found the evidence insufficient to support the claim.  The court concluded that the acts did not amount to discrimination because they were not engaged in by the BOCC, were questions with the purpose of determining the scope of future plans, were made after the determination, and that any nonconforming uses did not show pretext for discrimination as they predated the Plan.

The plaintiff’s next claim alleged that the BOCC’s denial of the special review application violated RLUIPA’s unreasonable limitations provision, which prohibits governmental restrictions that unreasonably impose limitations on religious land uses.  The court determined there was insufficient evidence, as the plaintiff could not show they were denying religious uses in the county.  The court stated that it is true that the land in the County is expensive and may effectively limit the use of some property, but the high value of real estate in a county such as this, with towns including Aspen, is not the fault of the BOCC.

The plaintiff’s sixth claim alleged that the BOCC’s denial of the application violated their right of free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.  Under such a claim, the plaintiff must show the application imposed a substantial burden, however, the court determined the burden was incidental. The court came to this conclusion as the regulations were neutral and generally applicable.  Also, there was no governmental purpose to favor secular uses, or to detriment religious uses, but rather the purpose was to support the preservation of the agricultural, environmental and scenic characteristics of the area.  Taking that into consideration, the court said that the decision was not arbitrary or capricious.

The court then moved to the plaintiff’s seventh claim, that the BOCC violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment Right of freedom of speech.  The court determined the County’s Land Use Code was a lawful time, place and manner restriction, as it allowed such uses in most zoning districts by special review.  The claim also alleges the plaintiff’s freedom of association was violated, but the court did not agree, stating that the denial did not inhibit the Church members from associating with one-another.

The plaintiff’s eighth claim, that the denial of the permit was an unconstitutional taking, was dismissed by the court as it was not yet ripe, for state procedures had yet to be followed by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff’s ninth claim, alleging equal protection violations, was also dismissed on the same grounds for dismissal of the RLUIPA equal terms claim.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s tenth claim, a combination of constitutional claims, as there was no evidentiary support.

Grace Church of Roaring Fork Valley v. Board of County Commissioners of Pitkins County, 2010 WL 3777286 (U.S. Dist. Ct. Colo. 9/20/2010)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.alliancealert.org/2010/20100923.pdf


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