By Glen C. Hansen

In Guatay Christian Fellowship v. County of San Diego (December 23, 2011, 09-56541) ___ F.3d ___, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a church’s claim that a land use permit regulation violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (“RLUIPA”) was not ripe for judicial review because the church had not completed the requirements for the use permit, and therefore the courts could not determine the particular burden that the church would have to shoulder under the challenged regulation.

In 1986, the Guatay Christian Fellowship (“Church”) moved to a recreation building on the grounds of a trailer park in an unincorporated portion of San Diego County. The park was zoned “rural residential.” While use permits are not required for religious assembly in five of the County’s twelve commercial zones and in one of the County’s residential zones, the building here was not located within such a zone. Soon after the Church moved into the recreation building, a County employee informed the Church secretary that the Church would have to submit a use permit application. The secretary then prepared and attempted to submit an application in person to the County offices, but after speaking with several people at the County offices, ultimately did not turn in the application. 

A new owner bought the property shortly after the Church began using the building in 1986. In March 1988, the owner submitted an application to the County for a minor deviation from the approved Use Permit in order to relocate six of the park’s RV trailer sites. The plot plan submitted with this application labeled the building as a recreation hall and did not mention a church. The County Planning Department disapproved the proposed minor deviation plan, in part, because the existing recreation hall was being used as a church. A County employee again informed the Church that “it seemed that the Church would probably require a major use permit.” No Use Permit application was ever completed. Nonetheless, the Church continued to use the property for religious assembly for the next twenty years.

The County issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the Park via the owner in April 16, 2008, which identified numerous violations, including the recreation building being “illegally converted for use as a church.” The NOV required that the Church stop using the building for religious assembly. The County separately informed the Church that because the property was not zoned for religious assembly and no permit had been obtained to allow such use, the continued operation of the Church for that purpose was illegal. The Church ceased all religious assembly on the property and brought an action in U.S. District Court, alleging claims that the County enforced a land use regulation in violation of the Church’s constitutional and statutory rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and RLUIPA. The District Court granted summary judgment, holding that the Church’s claims were not ripe for review. The Church appealed. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. 

The Court first disposed of the Church’s argument that the principles of equitable estoppel should spare the Church from completing the use permit application process. The Church failed to satisfy several elements of estoppel under California state law. The County had never expressly stated that the Church’s use was permitted, and the Church could not rely on lack of County enforcement to support its estoppel argument.

The Court then held that the Church’s claim was not ripe for judicial review. Following the lead of other Circuits and district courts within the Ninth Circuit, the Court applied the ripeness requirement from the takings case of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 186 (1985) into the RLUIPA context. In Williamson County, the Supreme Court held that “[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.” The Ninth Circuit applied that ripeness rule to RLUIPA claims because, in land use contexts, the final decision requirement (1) aids in developing a full record; (2) is the sole means by which a court can know precisely how the regulation at issue would finally be applied to the property; (3) might provide the relief the landowner seeks without requiring the courts to engage in unnecessary constitutional analysis; and (4) accords with principles of federalism because, by encouraging resolution of land use disputes at the local level, it evinces the judiciary’s appreciation that land use disputes are uniquely matters of local concern. Here, the Court was unable to determine if the Church has suffered a “substantial burden” under RLUIPA until the Church had submitted at least one use permit application to the County. The Church’s failure to complete even one full use permit application left the Court unable to discern whether there was a true case or controversy, and any resulting injury.

The Church argued that the costs of complying with the County’s use permit requirements (a) is a “substantial burden” under RLUIPA because such costs are “unreasonable and unattainable” for a non-profit organization in its position, and (b) implies that the County has deliberately imposed these requirements to quash the Church’s religious exercise. The Court did not decide that issue, and left open the possible argument that financial obligations alone might constitute a substantial burden for the purposes of RLUIPA. The problem here was that the record did not contain a finalized account of the “particular burden” that the Church must shoulder—what the Church will actually have to pay or do to comply with the County’s process and secure a permit. The Court stated: “Because the Church did not even complete the requirements for the County’s review of a single application, there was no way to know whether the Church will receive the permit it seeks. If the Church completed the application process, including the attendant environmental tests, and the County denies the Church’s request for a Use Permit, the Church may re-file its claims.”

The Ninth Circuit therefore left open for another day the question of whether the financial cost of complying with a land use permit regulation was so unreasonable or unattainable for a religious institution that such cost could constitute a “substantial burden” on the institution in violation of RLUIPA.

Glen C. Hansen is an attorney 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, or 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.