The The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has notified James City County, Virginia that it has opened an investigation over the County’s 2013 refusal to allow Peninsula Pentecostal (Church) to operate as-of-right in the County’s industrial zone following a 2012 amendment to its zoning ordinance. In 2013, the Church met with the County’s planners to outline its proposed 130,000 square foot facility (that is about the floor area of a Home Depot with a garden center) that would include two worship areas, classrooms, a nursery, offices, gym, meeting rooms, kitchen, reception hall, day care center, convenience store, and fuel station along with a 7,200 square foot garage and storage shed. The church’s school, day care and supporting facilties could accommodate 115 children. At this meeting, the Church was informed by County officials that, based on a recent amendment to the County’s zoning ordinance, churches were allowed as-of-right in the industrial zone.
In 2013, the County alleges that it became aware of “a large formatting error” with regard to the zoning ordinance amendment. It claims that it inadvertently included approximately 40 non-industrial uses – including a church use (“places of assembly”) – as permitted uses in the industrial zone. The County’s Planning Commission approved the proposed correction to the “formatting error,” but recommended that churches continue to be allowed as-of-right in the subject zone. The Board of Supervisors disagreed, and voted to approve the correction to the ordinance in its entirety. Now, the Church would have to submit an application to rezone its property for its intended use. A memorandum issued by the County’s zoning administrator and planner documenting the history of events is available here.
The DOJ has requested that the County provide its attorneys with a slew of information within 21 days, including “all letters, emails, correspondence, staff memos, notes, drafts, studies, resolutions, agendas, minutes and recordings regarding changes to the limited business/industrial and general industrial zoning districts.” It also seeks any other land use request made by a church in the past 10 years, as well as applications and decisions involving non-religious places of assembly (i.e., schools, museums, theaters, indoor amusements parks). The DOJ notes that its “investigation is preliminary in nature, and we have not made any determination as to whether there has been a violation of [the law] by James City County.”
For more information about the DOJ’s involvement in RLUIPA cases, click here. For local coverage, click here.