Ripeness is an important defense to RLUIPA claims.  A plaintiff must receive a final decision from the local authority as to how the zoning law applies to its proposal.  If not, plaintiff’s RLUIPA claim could be dismissed as unripe.  Requiring a party to go through the full local procedures offers practical benefits to local governments, crystalizing the issues and presenting an opportunity to resolve matters prior to litigation.  An initial denial by busy working-level zoning officials may create problems that can be solved by a zoning board of appeals’ more detailed and thoughtful review.  The final decision requirement insures that review occurs before the courts become involved.  Recently, however, plaintiffs have argued that finality is no longer necessary for a RLUIPA claim to be ripe.

Most of the RLUIPA ripeness cases rely on the Supreme Court’s decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Com’n v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985).  Williamson County set out a two-prong test.  Under the first prong, a claim was not ripe until the applicant “obtained a final decision regarding the application of the zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations to its property.”  The plaintiff in Williamson County never received a “conclusive determination” of its proposal (even though the Commission initially denied approval) because the plaintiff did not seek variances, including from the Board of Zoning Appeals.  Based on the finality requirement of Williamson County, a number of Courts of Appeal held RLUIPA claims were not ripe without an application or zoning board review, and dismissed the claims.

Last June, however, the Supreme Court, in Knick v. Township of Scott Pennsylvania, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019), overruled Williamson County.  As a result, some RLUIPA plaintiffs have contended that the finality requirement no longer applies.  The caselaw does not appear to support this argument.

First, the Supreme Court in Knick specifically pointed out that the plaintiff “does not question the validity of this finality requirement, which is not at issue here.”  Therefore, Knick did not overrule (or even address) the first prong.  Second, the finality requirement did not originate with Williamson County, which pointed out, “[a]s the Court has made clear in several recent decisions, a claim that the application of government regulations effects a taking of a property interest is not 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.”  Even in the absence of Williamson County, the pre-existing law that a final decision is a prerequisite to ripeness remains in effect.  Defendants may be well advised to be ready to defeat plaintiff’s attempts to rely on Knick, and not allow courts to be misled as to the decision’s impact on ripeness.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Tom Donlon Tom Donlon

Thomas Donlon’s practice focuses on appellate and complex trial matters. He is a member of the Robinson+Cole’s Appellate Team within the Business Litigation Group. Tom is involved in all aspects of complex litigation in trial courts, with a concentration on motion practice, particularly…

Thomas Donlon’s practice focuses on appellate and complex trial matters. He is a member of the Robinson+Cole’s Appellate Team within the Business Litigation Group. Tom is involved in all aspects of complex litigation in trial courts, with a concentration on motion practice, particularly complex dispositive motions requiring the briefing of challenging legal issues. Working with other members of the firm’s litigation group, his cases have run the gamut of civil litigation, including the representation of one of America’s largest corporations in an international contract dispute, the defense of insurance companies against bad faith claims, the enforcement of arbitration agreements against class action attack, defense of Native American corporations, disputes over major government construction contracts, and enforcement of penalties and attorney’s fees in bankruptcy. He litigated a series of Daubert motions in patent cases which significantly assisted the successful resolution of the matters and has also assisted in a number of land use and environmental cases in support of the firm’s practice in those areas. He was an integral part of the land use team litigating a major RLUIPA case.