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Zoning Law and Church Property

Does a Little League program violate zoning law?


An Ohio appeals court ruled that a church could use its property to conduct a "Little League" baseball program, despite the claim of a neighbor that such use violated local zoning law. A Methodist church established a baseball diamond on vacant land that it owned in order to operate a Little League baseball program. The church maintained that it is a fundamental tenet of Methodism that worship involves not only religious services, but also reaching out to the community through sponsorship of activities such as scouting and Little League. The baseball program sponsored by the church is for children ages 6 to 12. The season extends from April to late June, during which time about 4 games are played each week from 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and on Saturday mornings. To reduce parking problems in front of the complaining neighbor's house, "no parking" signs were installed on his property and orange pylons were placed in front of his property during games. Despite these precautions, the neighbor sued the church, demanding that the baseball program be discontinued. He claimed that the program violated local zoning law. The church property was located in a residential zone, which permitted churches and "church use." A trial court agreed with the neighbor that the operation of a baseball program on church property was not a permitted use of church property in an area zoned for "church use." The church appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the church and permitted the baseball program to continue. The court observed: "The trial court appears to suggest that a church is only a building and any use of the building or land adjacent must be necessary to the operation of that building as a church. We disagree." The court noted that the Ohio Supreme Court had not addressed this issue specifically, but that courts in other states had done so and they generally ruled in favor of the church. For example, one court in a similar case concluded:

A church is more than merely an edifice affording people the opportunity to worship God. Strictly religious uses and activities are more than prayer and sacrifice and all churches recognize that the area of their responsibility is broader than leading the congregation in prayer. Churches have always developed social groups for adults and youth where the fellowship of the congregation is strengthened with the result that the parent church is strengthened. To limit a church to being merely a house of prayer and sacrifice would, in a large degree, be depriving the church of the opportunity of enlarging, perpetuating, and strengthening itself and the congregation.

Accordingly, the Ohio court concluded that "activities such as sponsoring a Little League baseball program on land owned by, and adjacent to, the [church] are incidental to, and form a part of, the public worship program of [the church] and are permitted under the city zoning ordinances as a church use." The court emphasized that zoning ordinances must be construed "in favor of the property owner" (whose use of property is being questioned) and "in favor of the free use of property."

The neighboring landowner, in his defense, pointed out that the church had been denied a tax exemption for the baseball field on the ground that it was not necessary for purposes of religious worship. The court rejected the relevance of this argument, pointing out that statutes allowing a tax exemption for houses of public worship are to be strictly construed against the property owner, whereas zoning ordinances are to be construed in favor of the property owner. This case represents a balanced interpretation of the term church use in the context of a municipal zoning ordinance, and it should be of use to several churches both in Ohio and in other states. Cash v. Brookshire United Methodist Church, 573 N.E.2d 692 (Ohio App. decided 1988, reported 1991).

See Also: Zoning Law

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  • March 2, 1992

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