The United States District Court for the Western District of Washington (“Court”) ruled that the City of Seattle (“City”) violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) when instructing Corporation of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle and Bishop Blanchet High School (“Bishop Blanchet”) to procure a variance to meet the height requirements necessary in a residential, single-family zoning district rather then going through the Special Exemption Process. Bishop Blanchet, a private catholic high school, wanted to build four 70-foot-tall light poles to illuminate its athletic field. However, the height limit in the zoning district was 30 feet.
In order to build the light poles, Bishop Blanchet applied to obtain a variance, which was granted on April 25, 2013 by the Department of Planning and Development (“DPD”). On July 17, 2013 the Hearing Examiner overturned the DPD’s decision when they adopted the local neighbors argument that Bishop Blanchet did not meet the criteria to be granted a variance. Bishop Blanchet sought a special exemption, which had been granted to both Nathan Hale High School and Ingraham High School in a similar zoning district, to install their light poles. Both schools are public high schools unlike Bishop Blanchet, which is a private catholic school. The special exemption applies under SMC 23.51 B.002.D.6 “if the DPD ‘determines that the additional height is necessary to ensure adequate illumination and that impacts from light and glare are minimized to the greatest extent practicable.’” In such an event, a public school needs only to put forth an engineer’s report highlighting the impacts on light and glare.
Bishop Blanchet argued that RLUIPA had been violated because a public school in a similar situation would have been granted a special exemption, like Nathan and Ingraham High Schools. “There are four elements to establish a prima facie case of a RLUIPA equal terms claim: (1) an imposition or implementation of a land-use regulation, (2) by a government, (3) on a religious assembly or institution, (4) on less then equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” Before the Court, the only issue was the less then equal terms element.
In order to determine the last element, the Court must decide what characteristics were meant to be preserved in both the district and lighting fields. The Code provides for relevant criteria: “including light, tree coverage, density, structure height, traffic, parking, aesthetic consideration, and occupancy.” The City argued that Bishop Blanchet should be required to obtain a variance under “the accepted zoning criteria of ‘fostering the provision of public facilities by governmental agencies.’”
However, the Court found that Bishop Blanchet was treated on less then equal terms with both Nathan and Ingraham High Schools. The Court rejected the City’s argument and reasoned that the accepted zoning criteria is subjective in nature and has no connection to the zoning concerns of the district. Additionally, the exact language of the proffered acceptable zoning criterion by the City is nowhere to be found in the pertinent code sections. Further, the fact that the two public schools are public in nature does not adequately distinguish them from Bishop Blanchet. Lastly, the schools are situated “in residential, single family zones, have athletic fields which require lighting to be use in the evenings, and generate similar concerns with regard to parking, traffic, light, glare, and noise.”
Corporation of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle v. City of Seattle, 2014 WL 2807684 (WD WA 6/20/2014)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/washington/wawdce/2:2013cv01589/195539/43