Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 23, 2013

7th Circuit Court of Appeals Finds No RLUIPA Violations Where Bible Camp was Denied Permits; Comprehensive Plan is Not a Land Use Under RLUIPA; Total Exclusion Claim Falls as Do Substantial Burden and Equal Terms Claims

Eagle Cove proposed building a Bible camp for 348 campers and 60 others in outdoor camping sites on a 34-acre parcel on Squash Lake in Woodboro, Wisconsin, which it planned to operate on a year-round basis. In 2009, the Town of Woodboro had adopted a Comprehensive Plan and zoning designed to preserve the area’s “rural and rustic” character, which designated almost all of the parcels around Squash Lake as single family residential, the most restrictive zoning designation. Thus, some of the parcels planned for the Bible camp were zoned single family residential while the others were zoned residential and farming. All of the proposed parcels have been owned by the same family since 1942, and they were not originally purchased with the construction of the Bible camp in mind.

However, in 2001, the Town had voluntarily subjected itself to the Oneida County Zoning and Shoreland Protection Ordinance (OCZSPO), under which the Town relinquished its zoning authority to Oneida County; churches and schools are permitted in nearly 43 percent of County property. County zoning regulations permit religious land uses throughout the County, and recreational and seasonal camps in 36 and 72 percent of the lands in the County, respectively, and campgrounds for religious or secular purposes are allowed in 57 percent of County lands. The OCZSPO does not allow year-round permanent camps in single-family residential districts.

When Eagle Cove applied to the County in December 2005 for a rezoning of the properties to recreational zoning, in order to allow construction of the camp, the County consulted with the Town of Woodboro about the proposal. Woodboro held a series of meetings, and recommended that the County deny the petition because the proposed camp was not, in its view, consistent with the local comprehensive plan and was in conflict with the existing residential development around Squash Lake. The County ultimately denied the petition on those grounds, after determining that the denial would not violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) because Eagle Cove could have built a religious school or church on the property without needing the requested zoning change.

In 2008, Eagle Cove attempted to obtain a conditional use permit to construct and operate the proposed Bible Camp without having to rezone the property. The Town opposed this application as well, and the County agreed. Eagle Cove appealed to the County Board of Adjusters, which upheld the denial of the permit.

In March 2010, Eagle Cove brought suit in federal district court claiming that the Town and County had violated RLUIPA, the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Wisconsin Constitution. Eagle Cove also petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Both sides moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the District Court in favor of the County and Town, ultimately finding that it was Eagle Cove’s unwillingness to consider any alternate proposal aside from a year-round camp on the property, rather than the actions of the County and Town, which unreasonably limited Eagle Cove’s exercise of its religion. Eagle Cove here appeals.

On Eagle Cove’s RLUIPA Total Exclusion argument as to the Town, the court noted that the claim was predicated on the Town having zoning jurisdiction over the property in question which it could have used to exclude religious uses. However, given that the Town had relinquished its right to enforce zoning regulations to the County by agreeing to the OCZSPO, the Town retained no such authority in this case. Eagle Cove argued that the Town’s adoption and implementation of its Comprehensive Plan was enough of an exercise of authority over land use to qualify has jurisdiction, but the court rejected that argument. Ultimately, since the Town’s opinion was only a factor to be weighed by the County, the Court held that no RLUIPA claim could be sustained against the jurisdictionless Town. As to the County, the court found that there were several portions of Oneida County which would have allowed the type of camp proposed by Eagle Cove, just not the area preferred by Eagle Cove, meaning that the County had not totally excluded the activity within its jurisdiction. Thus, the RLUIPA total exclusion claim against the County also failed.

Eagle Cove also brought RLUIPA substantial burden claims and claims under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. However, Eagle Cove conceded that there were at least four other locations proposed by the County which would have been suitable for the proposed Bible Camp. Eagle Cove still insisted that the camp must be built on their Squash Lake property, but the Court held that this limitation was not one imposed by the County, rather one imposed by Eagle Cove itself. The County’s regulation was facially neutral and the regulations were implemented before Eagle Cove had announced any plans to build a Bible Camp there, making a Free Exercise or RLUIPA claim untenable. The Court found that although Eagle Cove claimed it was seeking the protection from unjust zoning laws through RLUIPA, “in reality Eagle Cove seeks nothing more than an exception from the OCSZPO on the basis of their religious beliefs.” The Court held that RLUIPA was not designed to provide special treatment for those seeking to use lands for religious purposes, and thus that RLUIPA did not apply to protect Eagle Cove in this case, and neither did the Free Exercise Clause. For those reasons, the Court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of both claims.

Next, Eagle Cove claimed that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the County’s restrictions were an unreasonable limitation on religious exercise under RLUIPA, and that those issues should have gone to trial. However, the Court noted that the OCZSPO had a neutral purpose, that it incorporated a neutral Comprehensive Plan, that the County allowed religious assemblies in other locations throughout the County, and that other types of religious assemblies are permitted on the property involved. Given that Eagle Cove could have created a different type of religious assembly at its proposed location, or chosen a different location for its proposed Bible Camp, the Court reiterated that a RLUIPA challenge would not survive, and upheld the lower court’s summary judgment finding in the County and Town’s favor.

Further, Eagle Cove claimed that the County violated the equal terms provision of RLUIPA. However, the Court noted that the single-family residential district in question prohibited equally permanent residential camps of a secular or religious nature. Since the purpose of the regulation was not to restrict religious land uses, but rather to restrict uses that were not single-family residential, regardless of their nature, the Court held that Eagle Cove could not sustain an equal terms claim under RLUIPA.

Finally, as to Eagle Cove’s claims under the Wisconsin state Constitution, the Court held that, even assuming that Eagle Cove’s beliefs were sincere and that it was burdened by the OCZSPO, the government had a compelling interest in preserving the rural and rustic nature of its lands, and the County and Town regulations provided a facially-neutral, generally applicable means for so doing. For those reasons, the state constitutional claims also must fail.

For all of those reasons, the District Court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the County and Town, dismissing all of Eagle Cove’s claims.

Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center v. Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin, 734 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 10/30/13)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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