West of the Mississippi the word “megachurch” brings to mind a church complex serving thousands of people. Contrast that to Maryland where apparently a “megachurch” is a 31,500-square foot sanctuary building, which would afford seating for 1,000 people, classrooms for religious education, a nursery area, a warming kitchen, offices, parking and a “fellowship hall” which would also serve as a gymnasium all on 16.6 acres. At least, it is a “megachurch” in Maryland if certain evangelical denominations are involved. Such a “megachurch,” in Maryland, may threaten the watershed, threaten the traffic pattern, and otherwise endanger the peace of the neighborhood so zoning laws can be invoked to stop its construction. Little did the Marylanders realize that West of the Mississippi such a church would be at best considered medium in size.
In Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v Baltimore County, Memorandum Opinion (USDC, D. Maryland, 2017), the Plaintiff outgrew its original location and facilities and bought 16.6 acres that was approved for a housing subdivision but only contained two single family residences. The zoning powers simply stopped the development of the entire 16 acres by the church. The parking lot proposed was too porous, even though it was identical to the parking lot at the church next door. The church building proposed might use a third of the land and threaten the watershed but the golf course next door had no environmental impact. The zoning board was especially afraid of the fellowship hall that might double as a gymnasium even though five other churches in the same zoning tract were approved for such facilities and the zone was automatically by statute open to school construction. Based on such facts, and many others, the Court in its 76 page opinion refused to dismiss the church’s lawsuit brought to enforce its rights provided by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 USC §§2000cc, et. seq. (“RLUPIA”). One board member was quoted in the news media as saying, “I don’t think a church of this scope was envisioned.” The Court noted it in passing but it seemed to explain the inconsistencies in application of the zoning laws. This decision meant only that the church got to proceed to try to prove their allegations.
What seemed clear from the opinion was that the church invested enough in its legal representation to make a viable fight against “city hall.” While the outcome remains to be determined, the opinion is a relatively good blueprint of what a church zoning challenge may entail. Typically, such challenges are factually byzantine because wide discretion is permitted, and the statutes often do not limit the exercise of discretion in a material way, no matter how many elements are in the statute. Also, the record of the reasons for decision available from such proceedings is often very thin. Indeed, in this case before the zoning board, no expert witnesses were engaged by the city to counter the expert witnesses called by the church during seven hearing sessions scheduled during a year. Only in public hearings before the city council were experts for both sides deployed. That means the church hired expert witnesses to testify before the zoning board, before the city council and will have to do so before the court. The costs have been and will be staggering. In federal court, the experts, if they have not already done so, will have to write reports compliant with the federal rules, testify at deposition, and if they survive that gauntlet testify at trial.