As the end of summer nears, most schools are finalizing courses and preparing for the return of students. Livingston Christian Schools has much more to deal with – it is suing Genoa Charter Township, Michigan, in federal court following the Township’s denial of its application for a special land use permit to operate a religious school.
The School alleges that for the past 9 years, it has operated its Christian faith-based school in the Village of Pinckney in a building that is now too small. The School sought to move to a larger facility more geographically centered in Livingston County. After examining and rejecting several properties, the School found a suitable one at 7669 Brighton Road in Genoa Township. This 16.5 acre property with a 37,620 square foot building is owned by the Brighton Church of the Nazarene. It is bounded to the west by another church, to the north by residential uses, and to the east and south by public roads.
On November 25, 2014, the School entered into a lease with the Church for a portion of the property to operate its religious school. The property already has a special land use permit required for “churches, temples, and similar places of worship and related facilities” in the Suburban Residential zone. In March 2015, the Church submitted an application to amend its existing special land use permit to allow the School to use its property as a religious school. The application stated that the school would have up to 32 employees and 250 students.
The Church submitted two traffic engineering studies that showed minimal traffic impacts. The Township engaged its own consultants and they largely agreed with the conclusions in the Church’s traffic reports. Further, the Township’s consultants determined that the proposed use would be consistent with the overall goal of the Township’s Master Plan to “accommodate a variety of land uses that are located in a logical pattern and complement community goals, the surrounding land uses, environment, capacity of roads and the sanitary sewer, and public water system capabilities.”
The Township’s Planning Commission and its Community Development Director also recommended that the Township Board approve the application with conditions. But the Township Board did not agree and denied the application on July 20, 2015, due to concerns about traffic and conflict with the goals of the Master Plan, such as promoting “harmonious and organized development consistent with adjacent land uses” and overburdening public infrastructure. In addition, the Township Board stated that another reason for denial was the Church’s history of noncompliance with past site plan requirements resulting in negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. According to the Township Board, this history of noncompliance suggests further noncompliance with the application for the religious school.
The School is suing under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden provision. The School claims that denial of its application has substantially burdened its religious exercise, as well as the religious exercise of its students, and the Township is without a compelling government interest to justify its actions, much less one advanced in the least restrictive means possible. The Church seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as attorneys’ fees. The Court has scheduled an August 31 hearing to consider the School’s emergency motion for a preliminary injunction.
Livingston Daily reports on this case.