ZONING TRAPS AND SNARES

Land use regulations, zoning laws, and permit requirements of every stripe usually constitute a maze that the uninitiated should not attempt alone.  Church leadership often begins construction or remodeling without fully considering these rules, or worse, believes they have.  Small churches are especially vulnerable because of their limited resources.

In Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. v Baltimore County, Slip Op. (USDC, D. Mary., 2017), the Plaintiff church started like so many in someone’s home.  As the church outgrew the home, a 1.2 acre residential lot and existing 2900 square foot home were purchased.  The church remodeled the existing home for use as a church building but apparently failed to consider land use regulations or obtain permits.  The neighbors complained and the County issued a cease and desist letter.  The court’s opinion should be consulted regarding the precise complications alleged by the County.  The church submitted at least two applications for permits and variances.  Hearings were held and the complainants were quoted by the federal court as testifying:  “[D]ancing and hollering like they are [sic] back at their home back in Africa somewhere.”  The applications were denied.  The Plaintiff sued alleging the denial was based on religious discrimination rendered unlawful by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 USC §2000cc.  The case was dismissed because the Plaintiffs did not plead that the County actions were intentional or subtle forms of discrimination.  The Plaintiffs also failed to plead that their applications complied at least minimally to the extent possible with land use regulations and was compatible with the neighborhood.

As noted, engaging a consultant to navigate land use regulations is imperative before purchase or construction.  Also, before engaging in litigation of this type, more so than most, laying a foundation for the case is imperative.  Discrimination is easy to claim but hard to prove.  Also, there was no limit on the number of applications that could be made.  Churches often make an application like this on their own without the benefit of qualified counsel.  While running to the federal court may have seemed like a good idea, getting on the agendas of the public boards that governed the county and stating the case may have paid greater dividends.

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