The Second Circuit recently issued a Summary Order in Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester v. City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board (2d Cir. 2018) detailing what zoning relief a plaintiff must seek at the local level before filing suit. The case involved the Islamic Community Center of Mid Westchester’s (ICCMW) claims that it had been the target of religious discrimination when the property it purchased to develop with a mosque was designated as a landmark by the City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board. Four months later, ICCMW sued, alleging the landmark designation violated its First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and RLUIPA.
The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (also known as “ripeness”), since ICCMW did not apply for a certificate of appropriateness to develop the property as a mosque. The Court applied the ripeness test articulated by the Supreme Court in the context of a takings claim in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985). The Second Circuit, and other federal courts, have extended Williamson County’s “final decision” requirement beyond takings cases to RLUIPA and constitutional claims. Under Williamson County, a landowner must show that it received a “final, definitive position” from a local authority to determine how it may use its property to establish ripeness. If a landowner is unable to meet this requirement, the case will be deemed unripe and dismissed.
The Second Circuit explained the rationale of the final decision requirement:
The final decision rule is designed to aid courts in understanding exactly how a litigant is being harmed by a land use designation, and to prevent litigants from rushing into federal courts when the harm could be avoided through a local process.
It added that “ICCMW’s failure to attain a final decision on its application by availing itself of the local procedure that could remedy its alleged harm – whatever that may be, since none has yet been articulated – bars it from litigating this claim in federal court.” ICCMW’s claims were dismissed without prejudice, with the Court acknowledging “the troubling reports of ICCMW regarding anti-Muslim animus expressed by some members of the surrounding community,” but the Court “express[ed] no view on whether those accounts may be sufficient to raise a successful claim after ICCMW has received a final decision on its certificate of appropriateness.”
Later this year, the United States Supreme Court will review the other part of Williamson County that applies solely to takings claims, which requires a plaintiff to seek a state remedy (for example, by suing and obtaining a decision in state court) before suing in federal court. That case is Knick v. Township of Scott, PA.