The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center v. Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin (7th Cir. 2013), has ruled that the County of Oneida’s (the “County”) and the Town of Woodboro’s (the “Town”) denial of plaintiff’s (“Eagle Cove”) applications to construct a year-round Bible camp on Wisconsin’s Squash Lake did not violate RLUIPA or the federal or state constitutions.  A summary of the case follows.

Background.

In 1998, the Town adopted a Land Use Plan to “encourage low density single family residential development for its lake and river front properties.”  The Town surveyed its approximately 750 residents and found that the majority wanted to maintain the Town’s rural and rustic character.  The zoning around Squash Lake reflects the goals set forth in the Land Use Plan and survey.  All but seven parcels around the lake are zoned for single-family residential use.

In 2001, the Town voluntarily subjected itself to the County’s Zoning and Shoreline Protection Ordinance (the “County Ordinance”), which established zoning districts throughout the entire County.  By subjecting itself to the County’s Ordinance, the Town relinquished its zoning authority to the County.  The County Ordinance permits churches and religious schools on 60% of the County’s land and forty percent of the Town’s land.  It also permits seasonal recreational camps on 72% of the land in the County and a year-round Bible camp would be allowed on 36% of the County’s land.

Eagle Cove sought to construct a Bible camp on 34 acres of land it owned on Squash Lake in Woodboro (the “Property”).  Eagle Cove believes that its religion requires it to operate the Bible camp on the Property and that it must do so on a year-round basis.  Part of the Property is zoned single-family residential and the other part is zoned residential and farming.  The County Ordinance states that the purpose of the single-family residential zone is “to provide an area of quiet seclusion for families.  This is the County’s most restrictive residential zoning classification.  Motor vehicle traffic should be infrequent and people few.”

In 2005, Eagle Cove submitted to the County a petition to rezone the Property from single-family residential/residential and farming to a recreational zone to construct the Bible camp.  The County sent a copy of the petition to the Town for its review and comment.  After a series of meetings, the Town recommended that the County deny the petition because the proposed Bible camp would, in its view, be inconsistent with the goals of maintaining the Town’s rural and rustic character and would conflict with the existing single-family development surrounding Squash Lake.  In 2006, the County denied the petition on the grounds that it would conflict with the majority single-family usage around the lake and would also be inconsistent with the regulations set forth in the Town’s Land Use Plan.  In denying the petition, the County considered RLUIPA and the potential adverse impact of a denial on Eagle Cove’s religious exercise, if any, and determined that there would be none.

In 2008, Eagle Cove submitted to the County an application for a conditional use permit to operate the Bible camp at the Property.  The proposed camp would include a lodge of more than 106,000 square feet for up to 348 campers with another 60 people at outdoor camping sites.  The Town recommended that the County deny the application, again on the grounds that the proposed camp would not conform to the zoning goals in the district.  In addition, the Town claimed that the camp would be incompatible with the single-family residential use around Squash Lake and the purposes and the goals of the Town’s 2009 Comprehensive Plan.  The County denied the application, which denial was upheld by the County’s Board of Adjusters on appeal.

In 2010, Eagle Cove sued the County and the Town in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging that the County and the Town violated its rights under RLUIPA, federal and state constitutions, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.  The District Court granted summary judgment on all counts in favor of the County and the Town.  Eagle Cove appealed the District Court’s decision on all claims except for those under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

RLUIPA Total Exclusion Claims

Eagle Cove alleged that the Town violated RLUIPA’s total exclusion provision, which prohibits governmental land use regulations from totally excluding religious assemblies from a jurisdiction.  42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(3)(A).  However, because the Town had chosen to be subject to the County Ordinance, the Seventh Circuit examined whether it would be possible for Eagle Cove to operate the year-round Bible camp in other parts of the County as opposed to the Town in particular.  Since it was undisputed that Eagle Cove could operate a Bible camp on 36% of the land in the County, it rejected Eagle Cove’s total exclusion claim.

RLUIPA Substantial Burden and First Amendment Free Exercise Claims

Eagle Cove alleged that the County’s denial of the conditional use permit application substantially burdened its free exercise of religion.  In the Seventh Circuit, a substantial burden “is one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise . . . effectively impracticable.  The burden must be truly substantial, to hold otherwise would permit religious organizations to supplant even facially-neutral zoning restrictions under the auspices of religious freedom.”  Petra Presbyterian Church v. Vill. of Northbrook, 489 F.3d 846, 851 (7th Cir. 2007).  The Seventh Circuit concluded that the County’s denial of the application did not impose a substantial burden on Eagle Cove’s religious exercise because Eagle Cove itself admitted that there are other locations that it could go to construct and operate the camp.  Therefore, “it is not the land use regulations that create a substantial burden, but rather Eagle Cove’s insistence that the expansive, year-round Bible camp be placed on the subject property.”

The Seventh Circuit also rejected Eagle Cove’s claim, premised on Sts. Constantine Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Inc. v. City of New Berlin, 396 F.3d 895, 901 (7th Cir. 2005), that the County and the Town “caused considerable delay, uncertainty, and expense in the execution of the rezoning application they submitted by leading them to believe that their permits would be granted.”  The fact that Eagle Cove spent considerable time and money on rezoning applications does not constitute prima facie evidence of a substantial burden.  The Town and the County maintained their positions that the operation of a year-round recreational camp at the Property would be inconsistent with the applicable regulations, goals, and policies.  Further, while the Town would not permit the Bible camp at the Property, it indicated that religious exercise at the Property would be permitted in the form of a church or school.

RLUIPA Unreasonable Limitation Claim

“RLUIPA’s unreasonable limitation provision prevents governments from adopting policies that make it difficult for religious institutions to locate anywhere within the jurisdiction.”  Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County Council, 706 F.3d 548, 560 (4th Cir. 2013).  The Seventh Circuit determined that, based on the evidence before it, the County’s land use regulations cannot be said to “unreasonably limit[] religious assemblies, institutions, or structures[.]”  42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(3)(B).  The County seeks to uphold the rural and rustic character of the Town and in particular the area surrounding Squash Lake.  Religious assemblies are permitted throughout the County and even on the Property.  “While it may be said that Eagle Cove’s insistence on a year-round Bible camp on the subject property without seeking alternatives is unreasonable, Oneida County’s zoning regulations that seek to preserve the character of the area around Squash Lake are not.”

RLUIPA Equal Terms Claim

RLUIPA’s equal terms provision prohibits “governmental land use regulations that treat religious institutions on less than equal terms with similarly situated institutions that do not have religious affiliation.”  42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1).  “The equal terms section is violated whenever religious land uses are treated worse than comparable nonreligious ones, whether or not the discrimination imposes a substantial burden on religious uses.”  Digrugilliers v. Consol. City of Indianapolis, 506 F.3d 616, 616 (7th Cir. 2007).  Eagle Cove alleged that the County’s land use regulations – not the County’s action in denying the conditional use permit application – violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision.  The Seventh Circuit, however, found otherwise, concluding that the County’s land use regulations do not treat religious land uses, in particular year-round Bible camps, less favorably than their non-religious counterparts.

The decision in Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center v. Town of Woodboro, Wisconsin (7th Cir. 2013) can be accessed here.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.