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Approving a Religious Training, Resort and Convention Center: RLUIPA and the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on October 23, 2017 Category: CEQA, RLUIPA, RLUIPA Case Observations and Insights, RLUIPA Cases, Substantial Burden

On October 18, 2017, the City of San Diego City Council voted 7-2 to approve the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center (“MCWE “) in San Diego after it previously voted the month prior 5-4 to reject the proposal. In conjunction with the law firm of Galuppo & Blake PLC, Dalton & Tomich PLC represented Morris Cerullo World Evangelism in its second hearing before the City Council regarding the development of the Legacy International Center.  The transformation of the former Mission Valley Inn into a $160-million-dollar religious themed resort and conference center, complete with replicas of the Western wailing wall and the Roman catacombs.

By way of background, MCWE, purchased the former Mission Valley Hotel and Resort, an 18-acre site at 875 Hotel Circle South, San Diego California in 2011.  Soon thereafter, it started developing the Legacy Center as a faith based resort and training center to further the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry work of Dr. Morris Cerullo. The mission of MCWE is to train ministers’ world-wide to preach the gospel. To date, Dr. Cerullo has trained over five (5) million people in ministry to become pastors, teachers and evangelists in their nations. Some of the largest churches and ministries overseas were birthed in these schools of ministry over the past sixty-(60)-years.

The Legacy Center’s purpose is to create a faith based welcoming environment featuring a 127 room 4-star resort hotel with restaurants fitness center and spa, exhibit facilities featuring biblical exhibits, a full dome theater with 100 motion seats featuring two films, Walk Through the Bible (a 17-minute journey through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible), and Wings Over Israel (an 8-minute aerial tour of the holy sites in Israel). MCWE will be creating a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, prayer gardens, a 500-seat theater and training facilities to further our mission, and office space for the center. The Legacy center is seeker friendly while also furthering our mission to train pastors’ worldwide.  All features are open to the public for use and enjoyment as well as those coming for specific training or teaching.

With respect to the entitlement process, MCWE spent four years working with the planning staff of the City of San Diego, completing a full EIR, traffic reports and site plans. They have further nearly completed all construction documents needed to pull building permits. MCWE received approval in September 2016 by the Mission Valley Planning Group 14-0 with 2 abstentions. In addition, the project received unanimous approval by the San Diego Planning Commission (6-0) on June 8 2017, recommending it to the city council. The City Council voted 5-4 against the project on September 17, 2017. All told my client has spent about $3.5 million on entitlement work, $10 million on preconstruction drawings and contractor engagement, and $18 million to purchase the site. A $31-million-dollar investment to date on a project that will ultimately cost $180 million to complete.

Though the development process, MCWE made clear that an essential tenet of its religious mission is to worship at the Mission Valley location. Opponents to the project alleged traffic concerns that were not based on objective data or factual concerns. Rather, they simply opposed the project due to its religiosity.  However, as we pointed out to the City Council, the allegations of increased traffic was not supported by the data collected by the traffic engineers who worked with City staff over past three years in evaluating this project. The failure to approve the project based solely on traffic concerns prevents MCWE from using its Property for religious purposes indefinitely. Together, these actions have imposed “a significantly great restriction or onus upon” the Church’s religious exercise. By barring the Church’s congregation from worshiping together as one spiritual family at the Property, the actions are undoubtedly “more than an inconvenience” on MCWE’s religious exercise. Rather, it is a “substantial burden” on the Free Exercise of Religion.

Further, in approving MCWE’s SDP and CUP request, the Planning Commission imposed conditions intended to alleviate the concerns expressed by area residents.  By ignoring the Planning Commission, a denial by the City Council would be employing the most restrictive means possible to further its interests. There was simply no possible, conceivable, or rational way the City can show the outright ban on using the Property for religious purposes constitutes the least restrictive means of the City furthering its interests.

We are very happy for our friends and clients at MCWE to help it achieve its goal of site plan approval.  If you have a similar issue, please feel free to contact the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to address your claims.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with expertise serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.