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Church of our Savior vs. Jacksonville Beach, Florida – our latest Religious Land Use case

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on February 18, 2014 Category: RLUIPA

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014 we will be arguing a Motion for Preliminary Injunction and opposing a Motion to Dismiss in a landmark religious land use case in the United States District Court, Middle District, Jacksonville, Florida.

The Church of Our Savior, located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida was founded in 2006 and now consists of approximately 100 members. This newfound growth has led Church elders to add a number of religious services, including Bible study groups for men and women. The Church has also established ministries of feeding the homeless at the City’s Mission House and supporting the teachers and staff at a nearby public elementary school. The service to the City has also contributed to the growth in the Church’s membership.

Currently, the Church does not have a full-time religious facility of its own. Rather, because of the congregation’s recent rapid growth, the Church is forced to host its weekly worship services at five (5) separate locations, four of which are located within the City. Currently, the Church hosts two worship services on Sunday mornings at Beaches Museum Chapel. Beaches Museum Chapel, located at 505 Beach Boulevard in the City, is an historic wooden chapel that has been moved to several locations over the years. The Church currently rents the chapel from the City in order to have space at which it can hold Sunday services. Because the Church rents the chapel, it cannot schedule services as it wishes, make repairs, or alter the chapel so as to tailor the facility to the Church’s needs. Because of the space and time constraints and conflicts the Church faces, it currently hosts its men’s Bible study program every Tuesday night at Colonel Mustard’s, a popular Jacksonville Beach restaurant. The Church also hosts a weekly women’s Bible study, weekly choir rehearsals, and other educational activities at Malone Hall, a public facility also located in the City.

In early 2013, the Church located the property at 2092 Beach Boulevard (“Property”) in Jacksonville Beach that was for sale. The Property consists of two distinct vacant parcels of land that are separated by a small piece of property. The Church hoped to construct a 7,400 square foot, one-story sanctuary with space for 200 worshipers on one of the parcels at the Property. The Church also hoped to use the southern portion of the Property for other Church activities, including a children’s play area or park. By centralizing its operations at one location, Church leaders anticipated that its membership would grow and the substantial burden on its current members, who are forced to travel from one location to another for various activities, would be lessened.

The Property is the only one of its kind available in the City that can adequately house both the worship facility and accompanying recreational area that the Church needs. As a result, the Church purchased an option to buy the Property from its owner, Mr. Goodloe and one form the Duval Land Trust. The Property is zoned “RS-1,” single-family residential, under the Jacksonville Beach Land Development Code (“LDC”). The LDC does not permit church assembly use in the RS-1 zone, and instead requires religious assemblies such as Plaintiff to apply for special dispensation from the City in the form of a Conditional Use Permit (“CUP”). In contrast, the LDC permits similar secular assemblies such as private and public parks as a matter of right in the RS-1 district, meaning such secular institutions are not required to apply for and receive a CUP from the City in order to operate. In fact, the LDC does not allow religious organizations as a matter of right in eleven (11) of its thirteen (13) zoning districts.. Consequently, in order for churches and other religious institutions to operate in these eleven districts, they must apply for – and be granted – special dispensation in the form of a Conditional Use Permit (“CUP”) from the City. While the LDC prohibits religious organizations as of right in both the Commercial Service (“CS”) and Central Business (“CBD”) zoning districts and thus requires religious institutions to apply for and receive a CUP from the City, the LDC allows similar secular institutions, such as civic, social and fraternal organizations, movie theaters, and membership sports and recreation clubs to operate as a matter of right in the CS and CBD districts.

On or about March 8, 2013, the Church submitted an application to the City for a CUP to build its planned church facility on the Property. The application indicated that the Church sought a CUP to operate a 200-250 seat church in the RS-1 zoning district. The City’s Department of Planning and Development affirmed the receipt of the Church’s CUP application and recommended approving the Church’s application after finding it met the standards for conditional use approval under LDC Section 34-336(e).

The Planning and Development Department found that the church use “represents a reasonable low intensity use of the undeveloped parcels…and would serve as transition between the soon to be developed commercial parking facilities to the east, and the Hopson Road neighborhood to the west and south.”

On April 8, 2013, the City’s Planning Commission heard the Church’s CUP request at a public hearing. Although the findings clearly indicated that the Church’s proposal would comply with height restrictions and setback and lot coverage requirements, a handful of neighbors objected to the CUP. In addition, Commissioner DeLoach expressed his belief that the Church’s proposal was not consistent with the character of the neighborhood. The Planning Commission then voted unanimously to deny the request despite the recommendation of the Planning and Development Department. The denial surprised the Church because the City’s Planning and Development Department officials – experts trained in evaluating CUP applications and zoning districts – had determined that the CUP should be approved.

After the Planning Commission’s denial, the Church contemplated its option for moving forward with its planned use of the Property. The Church and the City attempted to reach a mutual compromise that would allow it to proceed with its plans for the Property. However, the parties ultimately failed to come to a mutual resolution, and the City then encouraged the Church to submit a second CUP application in September 2013. Based on this suggestion, the Church submitted a second CUP application to the Planning and Development Department. The second application clarified that the first CUP application had mistakenly labeled the recreational area in the southern part of the Property to be a children’s area when the Church actually planned to make it a park open to neighborhood children, as permitted in the RS-1 zoning district.

Again, the City’s Planning and Development Department determined that the church met all of the standards in the LDC for conditional use approval and recommended that the Planning Commission approve the Church’s CUP application. The Planning Commission discussed the application at its meeting on September 9, 2013. On September 23, 2013, the Planning Commission once again disregarded the recommendation of the Department of Planning and Development and again unanimously voted to deny the CUP application. In its Findings of Fact, the Planning Commission indicated it denied the CUP “based on public testimony from the Hopson Road neighborhood residents” that the use of the Property for a religious use was inconsistent with the character of the surrounding properties. The Planning Commission also found that the Church’s planned use of the Property “is not consistent with RS-1 zoning district maximum lot coverage standards.” This determination was made in spite of the However, the Planning and Development Department’s earlier finding that the church use “represents a reasonable low intensity use of the undeveloped parcels…and would serve as transition between the soon to be developed commercial parking facilities to the east, and the Hopson Road neighborhood to the west and south,” and that the Church’s “requested use of the subject properties is contemplated in RS-1 zoning, so it is not inconsistent with their Comprehensive Plan Residential – Low Density designation.”

Clearly, the Planning Commission’s denial again stunned the Church, especially since the Planning Commission approved a CUP application submitted by another church in the RS-1 zoning district in 2010. The City also granted a CUP to a functionally similar secular assembly, a private school, in the RS-1 District in 1994. The City also granted a CUP for a public secondary school seeking to locate in the RS-1 zoning district. Also, the Planning Commission granted a CUP to Epic Surf Ministries in 2008 to operate a religious use in a residential district of the City.

Based on a review of the Planning Commission’s actions over the past nine (9) years, it appears almost unheard of for the Planning Commission to ignore or otherwise go against the recommendation of the Planning and Development Department on CUPs. Furthermore, the Church has no ready alternatives since there are no other parcels of property available in the City’s C-1 and C-2 zoning districts, which are the only two zoning districts in the City that permit religious organizations as a matter of right. The Church has utilized and exhausted all of its administrative remedies as set forth in the LDC without success since the Planning Commission’s decision is not appealable, thus effectively rendering the Planning Commission’s decision final.

As a result of its denial of the Church’s CUP application, the Planning Commission has in effect denied the Church the right to use the Property for religious assembly purposes, which is a blatant interference with the Church’s free exercise rights. Consequently, the Church is being forced to continue holding its religious services and events at a rented chapel owned by the City and the back of a restaurant.

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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 experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.