By William W. Abbott

The "Faith" Fellowship Foursquare Church (“Church”) is a church active in the City of San Leandro, but as its membership grew with the passage of time, the Church outgrew its existing facilities. Starting in 2006, the Church began searching for a new location and eventually settled on property on Catalina Street, located in an industrial park. The park was located in an area designated by the City’s general plan for industrial technological activity. In March 2006, the Church entered into a purchase agreement for the Catalina property.

The City’s zoning code did not allow assembly uses in the applicable zoning district, and City staff advised the Church that churches and other assembly uses were allowed only in residential districts, and then only with a conditional use permit. Staff advised the church that in order to develop the Catalina property, the City would have to amend the zoning code for the industrial limited (“IL”) classification, and rezone the property to the IL district.

After the Church filed an application, the staff developed reservations about the broader implications of allowing assembly uses in the IL zone. The City then debated the alternative strategy of creating an overlay zone applicable to non-residential properties. The Church, in contract to purchase the Catalina property, while the City considered its options, was running out of time. In October of 2006, the Church paid a non refundable fee of $50,000.00 to extend the contract to the end of December, 2006. At the end of December, the Church closed the deal and took title to the property. In March 2007, the City adopted and overlay zone and applied the overlay to 196 properties (over 200 acres). The Catalina property was not rezoned with the overlay as it did not meet the criteria of the ordinance. The Church then filed an application to apply for the overlay to the Catalina property. The City Council rejected the application in May 2007. Concurrent with the request, the Church sought an assembly use permit for the Catalina property. As the existing zoning did not permit assembly uses, the Planning Commission and City Council denied the request. The Church then filed a Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) claim. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, No. 09-15163 (9th Cir. February 15, 2011)

The District, after determining that the City’s zoning ordinance uses a neutral law of general application, determined that RLUIPA’s strict scrutiny standard of review did not apply. As a result, the district court granted summary judgment for the City, finding that the City’s stated interest of reserving the Catalina property for industrial uses, was legitimate.

The appellate court first rejected the trial court’s determination that under RLUIPA, as a matter of law, the City’s regulations could not impose a substantial burden on the Church’s exercise of religion. While the ordinance was facially neutral and of broad application, the “burden” was potentially triggered by the Church’s specific request for a rezoning and separate request for a conditional use permit. To significantly burden the exercise of religion, the regulation must be more than an inconvenience, and must be “oppressive” to a “significant extent”. In the summary judgment proceeding below, the Church offered evidence from a realtor and former city manager that there were no other suitable sites in the city to house the Church’s operations. While the district court found the evidence to be less than persuasive, the appellate court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. This evidence included the realtor’s analysis that none of the 196 parcels zoned with the overlay was of sufficient size to house the Church’s operations (which included concurrent services, children’s programs and related ministries). The City’s argument that these activities could have been conducted at separate locations did not overcome the Church’s position that its faith required that these activities be conducted simultaneously and physically together. The court of appeals went on to address the district court’s additional determination that the City had stated a compelling state interest in preserving lands for employment uses as called for in its general plan, and that this strategy was the least restrictive means of accomplishing that goal. While expressing doubt as to the validity as to whether or not reservation of lands for employment opportunities was an appropriate interest upon which to restrict religious practices, the court of appeals did conclude that the City had failed to demonstrate that it had used the least restrictive means of accomplishing that goal.

Procedurally, the case goes back to trial at the district court.

William Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.