Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center, Inc. (the “Temple”), on June 29, 2016 in the Eastern District of New York, sued the Town of Oyster Bay, New York, the Town Board, and several Town Officials (together, the “Defendants”) after the Defendants halted the Temple’s construction of a house of worship, known as a gurdwara. The complaint is available here.
According to the complaint, the Temple had received site plan approval in February, 2014 to construct a new gurdwara on property it used for worship since 1987, as well as three adjoining parcels. On March 7, 2014, the Temple obtained a building permit to construct the new gurdwara, and in September it began demolition of its prior gurdwara.
Neighbors started complaining when construction of the new gurdwara began. Then, on July 2, 2015, the Town issued a stop work order, which the complaint alleges was a direct response to these complaints. After the stop work order, the Temple held various meetings with the Town’s Commissioner of Planning and Development, Frederick Ippolito. After several revisions to the site plan addressing parking, Ippolito notified the Temple, on January 21, 2016 that the stop work order was lifted.
On February 2, 2016, the Town Board adopted Resolution No. 65-2016 (the “Resolution”), which “suspended” the site plan approval issued to the Temple. The Resolution stated that the prior approval was contingent on the purchase of a property across the street from the Temple’s property, although the Temple contests that the contingency exists. The Town also told the Temple that it would need to conduct an environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”). The Temple says the review is unnecessary, and that since 82% of the gurdwara has already been constructed, SEQRA review would impose an undue burden and delay on the Temple and its members, who, the Temple asserts, are now without an adequate place of worship.
The complaint includes three RLUIPA counts (Substantial Burden, Nondiscrimination and Equal Terms), and causes of action under the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and the New York State Constitution.
Whether requiring SEQRA review imposes a substantial burden is an issue worth following. In Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner (2d. Cir 2011), the Second Circuit found that although SEQRA is not a “land use regulation” as defined by RLUIPA, SEQRA’s application might still trigger RLUIPA’s protections in some situations. In Fortress Bible, the court found that the Town of Greenburgh, New York had substantially burdened Fortress Bible’s religious exercise by acting in bad faith and using the SEQRA review process as a way to block the church’s development proposal. SEQRA review was considered in the substantial burden analysis because “the Town used the SEQRA review process as its vehicle for determining the zoning issues related to the Church’s land use proposal… [and] holding that RLUIPA is inapplicable to what amounts to zoning actions under statutorily mandated environmental review, such as SEQRA, would allow municipalities to insulate zoning decisions from claims of violations under RLUIPA.” We posted about the SEQRA issue in Fortress Bible here and about the final settlement in the case here.