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.
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.