In a decision last week from the Eastern District of California, the Court dismissed a RLUIPA claim asserted by a ranch owner who was prohibited from building a private chapel on his property, finding that his claim was not ripe for review. In Anselmo v. County of Shasta, Civ. 2:12-361 (E.D. Cal. May 9, 2013), the Plaintiff purchased property on which he operated a ranch and winery. Plaintiff, a devout Roman Catholic, also had plans to construct a private chapel on the property. However, when Plaintiff sought approval to build the chapel, the County refused to allow it, claiming the chapel was inconsistent with the property’s agricultural use zoning.
On the County’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court determined that Plaintiff’s RLUIPA claim was not ripe for review because Plaintiff did not demonstrate an immediate injury connected to the County’s land use regulations. The Court explained that Plaintiff had not completed the application process for either a rezoning permit or building permit. Further, the Notice of Non-Compliance and Warning Notices issued by the County only provided that Plaintiff’s property was currently in violation of land use regulations. Consequently, there had been no final decision as to whether Plaintiff would or would not be granted the permit they needed to use the property as he desired. The Court also found that it would not be futile for Plaintiff to seek a final decision from the County.
Plaintiff also asserted free exercise and procedural due process claims. With respect to the free exercise claim, Plaintiff had not demonstrated that the alleged deprivations of his constitutional rights were caused by an official government policy from the County, and also the applicable County Zoning Code section was a neutral law of general applicability that did not infringe on Plaintiff’s religious practices because of his religious motivation. The procedural due process claim also failed because Plaintiff could not demonstrate that he had a protected property interest in using the chapel on his property when he had not obtained a building permit.
As this case shows, the issue of ripeness can be one of the greatest obstacles to a religious institution attempting to assert a RLUIPA claim, and in turn one of the best defenses for a government to make to try to get a lawsuit dismissed. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich are ready to answer any questions you may have about ripeness or religious land use claims generally. Please contact us if you have any questions. A full copy of the Court’s opinion is available here.
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.
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