Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 28, 2013

CT Superior Court Overturns Conditions on Special Use Permit for House of Worship but Finds No RLUIPA Violation

In 2010, the New England Prayer Center submitted an application for a special permit to the Commission for the construction of a house of worship. After a series of public meetings, the Commission approved the application subject to eleven special conditions. The Prayer Center appealed the Commission’s decision on five of the special conditions arguing that they are vague, inconsistent with the Commission’s prior rulings and unsupported by the evidence on the record. The Prayer Center also alleges the Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause and RLUIPA by imposing the special conditions on the approval of the special permit.

The first condition challenged by the Prayer Center required the plaintiff to provide a Conservation Easement over the 100-year flood plain area of the Mill River designed to protect natural vegetation and ecology of the area. The condition also gave the Prayer Center the option to include a limited trail easement within the conservation easement. The Prayer Center argued that the Conservation Easement itself isn’t the issue, but its desire to maintain the use of a historic picnic area along with its desire to ensure the security of the site from the dangers of unrestricted public access is the reason it cannot support the condition. The Prayer Center argues that because there is no specific draft conservation easement that the condition is void for being unduly vague. The Commission countered asserting that the drafting of such an easement would occur after the resolution of approval with attorneys drafting the actual easement. The Court noted the apparent desire of all parties, including the public, to maintain access to the area for recreational fishing. However, despite the usefulness of the easement to ensure ecological sanctity and place an obligation on the Prayer Center to allow people to use their property to enjoy recreational fishing, the Court held that because no easement exists, it is too vague, and not clearly articulated because it is not expressed in sufficiently definable terms to enable all interested parties to know what is required of the plaintiff.

The second challenged condition limited the activities on the site to be limited to Prayer Center functions and other non-profit events sponsored by the Prayer Center. The Prayer Center argued that this condition is also unduly vague and could inhibit or prevent its ability to conduct programs with other religious or charitable organizations and it effectively limits attempts by the Church to make money, including offering educational programs. The Court held the condition unsupported by the record and thus reversed.

The third and fourth conditions dealt with maximum occupancy and on-site parking, respectively. Prior to addressing these issues, the Court determined it could not take traffic considerations into account because the Commission argued its restrictions are for purposes of on-site parking and thus would not defeat the rebuttable presumption that a new development constructed through a special use permit would not adversely affect traffic. The third condition imposed a maximum site occupancy of 300 people and a maximum staffing number of 30. The Prayer Center argued the number was arbitrary and did not account for the use of the entire parcel, not just the main structure on the property. The Court found no evidence in the record to support the finding that only 300 people, plus only 30-staff or other hired help on the entire 30-acre property was reasonable, thus the Court reversed the condition. The next condition stated that all parking must be on-site and there will be no off-site parking. The Prayer Center argued that the offsite parking restriction is a matter for the police authority of the community and not an appropriate element of the special condition. The Court held that while the Commission can require cars to be parked in parking spaces, they have no authority to prohibit all offsite parking, which could prohibit the use of shuttles or carpooling according to the Court, and therefore that condition is overturned as well.

The final challenged condition limited outdoor activities at the amphitheater to operate without “objectionable sound amplification.” The Prayer Center argued that this condition is unduly vague because there is no proper standard by which their behavior may be objectively judged. The Court determined that the record established no clear indication of the level of noise permitted by the condition thus rendering it invalid by being too vague and not clearly articulated.

Lastly, the Prayer Center alleged that all of the challenged conditions, when taken as a whole, amount to a violation of the Free Exercise Clause and RLUIPA. The Court rejected this argument because the record shows no instance how the land use requirements imposed by the Town ‘substantially burden’ plaintiff’s religious exercise.

New England Prayer Center, Inc. v. Planning & Zoning Commission Of the Town of Easton, 2012 WL 6846551 (CT Sup. 12/13/2012)

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