• Key point: The possibility of increased traffic congestion may not be a sufficient basis to deny a church a special use permit to construct a sanctuary on church-owned land.
• A Connecticut court ruled that a local zoning commission acted improperly in denying a church a special permit to construct a sanctuary in a residential zone. A 500-member nondenominational church with no building of its own met in a local public high school for its weekly services and activities. The church purchased a 13-acre tract of undeveloped land in a residential zone, and then applied to the city for a special permit to construct a church building. Most of the land in the town was zoned residential, and churches were not a permitted use in residential zones without a special permit. Neighboring landowners opposed the church’s permit request, and extensive public hearings were conducted to determine whether or not a permit should be issued. In 1988, the zoning commission decided to issue the permit, but this decision was later overturned by a local court on procedural grounds. A second permit application was filed by the church in 1990. This time, the commission voted (4 to 3) to deny the permit. It did so because the use of the property as a church would increase traffic congestion in the area. The church immediately appealed this determination to a local court. The court, in concluding that the zoning commission acted improperly in denying the church’s application for a special permit, observed:
[E]ven though churches may not be completely excluded from residential zones they can be subject to reasonable regulation as to their location without violation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. This is the majority rule …. [E]ven if they cannot be wholly excluded from a town, churches and church schools may be subject to reasonable zoning regulations and require a special permit …. Cases from other states have held that it is illegal for a municipality to exclude churches in all zones, from all residential zones, to allow them in the municipality only with a special permit, or have held that there was no compelling reason to deny a special permit …. These cases are based on the concept that such zoning restrictions must yield to the right of freedom of religion protected by the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States constitution and comparable provisions in state constitutions where the zoning regulations unreasonably hinder or restrict religious activities. Constitutional provisions do not prevent all governmental regulation of churches and religious organizations, and they may be subject to religiously neutral regulation for a secular governmental purpose under the police power, such as, fire inspection and building and zoning regulations.
Further, the court observed that the Connecticut state constitution specifies that churches “may build and repair houses for public worship,” and this clause provided churches with even greater legal protection. The court noted that the church had conceded that the constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion do not give the absolute right to a church to construct a church building wherever it wants. On the other hand, “some increased traffic from construction of a church … is not a sufficiently significant factor to warrant limitation of freedom of religion by denial of a special permit.” The court concluded that while the zoning commission must grant a special permit to the church, “it has the right to attach reasonable conditions necessary to protect the public health, safety, convenience and property values …. The commission’s authority to impose reasonable conditions is not a standard allowing it to tack on any condition it wants …. Reasonable and necessary conditions within the control of the [church] to alleviate traffic congestion in the vicinity of the site can be attached to a special permit.” This case will be helpful to other churches that are denied a special permit to construct a building in a residential zone. Grace Church v. Planning and Zoning Commission, 615 A.2d 1092 (Conn. Super. 1992).
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