In what appears to be the largest amount ever paid to settle RLUIPA litigation, the Town of Greenburgh, New York has agreed to pay Fortress Bible Church (“Church”) $6.5 million to resolve its claims that the Town violated RLUIPA. We reported on this case last year and noted that it was of particular interest in light of the Second Circuit’s finding that in some circumstances environmental review may amount to a zoning action within the reach of RLUIPA, particularly when there is evidence of bad faith on the part of a municipal agency.
The Second Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, finding that the Town had substantially burdened the Church’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA by acting in bad faith and using the SEQRA review process as a way to block the Church’s proposal:
By its terms, however, RLUIPA also applies to ‘the application of’ a zoning law. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(5). Although SEQRA by itself is not a zoning law, in this case the Town used the SEQRA review process as its vehicle for determining the zoning issues related to the Church’s land use proposal. The fact that these issues were addressed during the SEQRA review process rather than the Town’s normal zoning process does not transform them into environmental quality issues. We therefore conclude that, in these circumstances, the Town’s actions during the review process and its denial of the Church’s proposal constituted an application of its zoning laws sufficient to implicate RLUIPA [because:] (1) the SEQRA review process was triggered because the Church was required to obtain three discretionary land use approvals; (2) the Town intertwined the SEQRA review process with its zoning regulations; (3) when review was underway, the Town focused on zoning issues rather than traditional environmental issues; and (4) holding that RLUIPA is inapplicable to what amounts to zoning actions under statutorily mandated environmental review, such as SEQRA, would allow municipalities to insulate zoning decisions from claims of violations under RLUIPA.
The case all started as a result of the Church’s request to construct a larger religious facility in the Town than it had been operating in Mount Vernon. The property, which consists of 6.53 acres, would have 125 parking spaces, occupying 1.45 acres. The proposed church would accommodate 500 people and its religious school would enroll up to 150 students.
Reportedly, the Town’s insurance will cover only $1 million of the $6.5 million it has agreed to pay. The Town’s citizens will have to fund the balance, paying $1.1 million per year in principal plus interest over a five-year period beginning in 2015. In light of this case, municipalities may wish to seriously consider offering comprehensive training programs on RLUIPA and other constitutional issues that may arise during the course of an agency’s review of a land use application.
You can read the Second Circuit decision in Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner (2d. Cir 2011), by clicking here.
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