The Northern District of California recently dismissed RLUIPA claims filed by the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the Methodist Church (the “Conference”) against the City of San Francisco.  The case revolves around the sale of a Methodist Church located at 1601 Larkin Street in the Russian Hill area of San Francisco.  The church was constructed after the 1906 earthquake and was home to a thriving congregation in the 1930s and 1940s.  By the 1970s, however, the congregation had declined significantly, and by 2000 there were only eight members.  By 2003, the church was no longer used for religious purposes.

 In 2004, the Conference arranged to sell the church to Pacific Polk Properties, LLC (“Polk”) for the development of market-rate condominiums.  The purchase price was $3,000,000, but as a condition of the sale, the existing church had to be demolished.  The Conference and Polk sought to obtain the necessary permits and approvals for demolition, but the San Francisco Planning Department determined that the proposed demolition required an environmental impact report (“EIR”) under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  The City issued a draft EIR in April of 2007 and then held a public hearing on the application.  At the hearing, it was suggested for the first time that the church should be designated as a “landmark.” 

Almost three years after the demolition application was filed, it was referred to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Board.  The Conference subsequently sued in state court and in May, 2008, received an order requiring the City to cease landmark proceedings.   The City appealed the decision, but the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, finding the City lacked authority to landmark the church.

In 2010, the permitting process for approval of Polk’s proposed development and the necessary demolition permit recommenced.  After approximately three more years (ten since the original application), several revisions to the Draft EIR, modified design proposals and numerous committee and public hearings, Polk’s building permit and the demolition permit applications were granted.  The Conference’s original complaint was filed on May 5, 2011, but later amended to incorporate subsequent events, including the April, 2014 approvals.

The Conference claimed that the City’s ten year delay in issuing a demolition permit substantially burdened its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA and the First Amendment.  Although its property would no longer be used for religious exercise, it claimed that the City “prevented it from converting the property into liquid assets that could then be used to further its religious mission.”  For example, the Conference sought to use the money to “expand evangelical outreach programs, make needed repairs to buildings to provide safe places of worship, create new programs to expand Methodism in San Francisco, feed the poor and provide shelter for the homeless.”  The court disagreed:

RLUIPA’s statutory language, its legislative history, and relevant case law establish that commercial endeavors such as that here – the sale of property for the construction of market rate condominiums – even if undertaken by the Conference in order to fund its religious mission, do not constitute “religious exercise” protected by RLUIPA.

The court did not, however dismiss the Conference’s First Amendment claim, which, unlike its RLUIPA claim, was “based upon a broader notion of unequal treatment.”  Viewing the Conference’s first amended complaint in the most favorable light, the court found that the Conference may prove that the City acted with an intentional pattern and practice of discrimination, through approximately a decade of bureaucratic proceedings, as opposed to the RLUIPA claim, which was limited to the denial of the demolition permit.  Finally, the court dismissed the Conference’s “course of conduct” regulatory takings claim, but granted the Conference leave to amend its complaint to specify what, if any decision by the City established a regulatory taking.

The decision in California-Nevada Annual Conf. of the Methodist Church v. San Francisco, No. 11-cv-02338 (N.D. CA 2014) is available here.

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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.