A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by New Life Evangelistic Center, Inc. against the City of St. Louis because New Life’s claims are not yet “ripe” for review.  In order for a court to have jurisdiction to hear the merits of a case, the case must be ripe.  The ripeness doctrine is meant to prevent courts from deciding claims that have been prematurely brought.  Generally, constitutional and other federal claims involving land use regulation will not be deemed ripe “until the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.”  Williamson Cnty. Reg’l Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172, 186 (1985).  A variance may also be required to satisfy the ripeness requirement.

Because New Life had applied for a zoning permit that had not yet been decided by the City’s land use agency, the Court concluded that New Life’s claims were not ripe for review.

New Life is an interdenominational Christian church that operates a homeless shelter serving approximately 225 people on average (and 300 people on a cold night).  It has been operating since 1976 under a hotel permit allowing it to have 32 beds.  After receiving a citizens’ petition, the City declared the shelter a detriment to the neighborhood and said it would revoke the hotel permit unless New Life either proved that it complied with the 32-bed requirement for at least 30 days or that it obtained the necessary permit to continue to operate.

New Life sued the City in March 2015 alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Constitution and state law.  In July 2015, New Life applied for a new permit and reported to the Court that its communications with the City had been productive.  New Life even stated at a September hearing that it would stay its lawsuit pending resolution of its application.  The City moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that New Life’s claims were not ripe for review until a final decision had been made with respect to the zoning permit application.

For additional information on New Life’s petition, see our prior post here.

New Life argued that its case should not be dismissed because applying for the zoning permit was futile.  According to New Life, the application was futile because it would be unable to meet certain requirements necessary for approval.  For example, it claimed that it could not obtain a permit because the ordinance prohibits a homeless shelter from being located next to a school or a church, and New Life is a church and the shelter is next to a school.  The futility exception allows a court to consider the merits of an otherwise unripe claim if seeking zoning relief would be a futile effort.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that “the City has the authority to issue variances and has repeatedly indicated a willingness to work with New Life to promptly address its application including any requests for variances.”

The Court also considered whether New Life had suffered a sufficiently defined immediate injury that required judicial intervention before a final decision on the zoning permit application had been rendered, and determined that it had not: “any claim of immediate injury is suspect given the numerous options afforded New Life upon issuance of the Board Order and Plaintiff’s current willingness to stay the action in order to proceed with the new application.”

The court also suggests that even if the zoning permit itself has not been decided, and even if the application for the zoning permit is futile and therefore the action would be ripe, the very fact that New Life could still apply for and be granted a variance from the zoning requirements of the zoning permit may be sufficient in and of itself to sustain the ripeness defense.

This case may serve as an important reminder for local governments facing the threat of RLUIPA and other federal suits.  When a lawsuit is brought, it may be a worthwhile exercise to examine the local zoning code to determine whether the plaintiff has sought a variance or has otherwise obtained a final decision.  In the case of New Life, the Court stated that it “cannot determine that the City has definitively barred New Life from using the building as it wishes until the City has evaluated a complete application and determined how it will apply its land use regulations to the [building].”

The Court’s decision in New Life Evangelistic Center, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, Missouri (E.D. Missouri 2015) is available here.