A federal court in Michigan has ruled against a Muslim group in its RLUIPA suit against Pittsfield Charter Township after finding that the group lacked a legally cognizable property interest to sustain its claims. To establish a RLUIPA claim, a plaintiff must have “an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(5). This case – Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor v. Pittsfield Charter Township (E.D. MI March 20, 2015) – is noteworthy because it is not often that the validity of a real property interest is an issue in RLUIPA litigation. Here, the Muslim group, Michigan Islamic Academy (“MIA”), had permission to use the property by the owner, but never acquired a property interest in accordance with state law.
MIA is a school that provides secular and Islamic religious education to preschool through grade twelve. MIA believed that its existing 10,000 square foot facility was too small to accommodate its religious needs and began looking for a new site to use as a school. It eventually found a new site, consisting of more than 26 acres of undeveloped land zoned as planned unit development (“PUD”). To further its development in the PUD zone, MIA submitted a petition for a zoning amendment and an area plan– even though it claimed that it did not need to do so – but the petition was ultimately denied. Thereafter, MIA brought suit, contending that the denial of its petition violated: (a) RLUIPA’s substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equal terms provisions; (b) the Establishment Clause under the state and Federal constitutions; and (c) the state and federal Equal Protection Clause.
The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the Township after concluding that MIA did not have a sufficient property interest to maintain its RLUIPA claims. Although MIA had permission to use the property to develop a school, it never acquired a legally cognizable property interest to do so in accordance with Michigan law. Specifically, under Michigan law, “[a] conveyance of an interest in land must be in writing and comport with the statute of frauds.” Marina Bay Condos., Inc. v. Schlegel, 167 Mich. App. 602, 606 (1988). Here, there was no evidence that the alleged conveyance was ever made in writing, as required by state law, regardless of any promise by the owner to allow MIA to use the property. Accordingly, the court rejected MIA’s RLUIPA claims.
MIA’s claims (RLUIPA and constitutional) failed for the additional reason that they are not ripe. To satisfy ripeness, MIA must seek a decision from the Zoning Administrator as to whether it must submit a petition to amend the PUD or whether its proposed school is a “small-scale school,” as argued by MIA, and therefore permitted on the property as presently zoned.
The Township may have dodged a bullet, because the court describes in its decision some troubling behavior by one of the Township’s Planning Commissioners who voted to recommend denial of the petition. This member not only lived in the neighborhood of the proposed school, but she also actively encouraged community members to oppose MIA’s proposal. She admitted in her deposition that she went from house to house and knocked on doors to distribute opposition materials to residents. She also coached community members on how to effectively oppose the petition and shared specific talking points and arguments to this end.
This may not be the last we hear of this case, as the court carefully notes that MIA may reassert its claims if it acquires a legally cognizable interest in the property or another person or entity that does have such an interest in the property may assert these claims. The court also states that if the Zoning Administrator concludes that MIA cannot build a school on its property as presently zoned, the case may be reopened with an amended complaint naming the new plaintiff. The saga continues.