The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a city had improperly denied a church’s request for a special use permit to use property for church purposes.

Church Law and Tax2002-07-01


Key point 7-06.2. Some courts permit local zoning commissions to restrict the location of churches in residential areas.

Zoning Law and Churches

* The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a city had improperly denied a church’s request for a special use permit to use property for church purposes. In 1996 a church purchased a building and parking lot adjacent to a four-lane highway. The building had previously been used as a Masonic Temple. The property was located in a zoning district defined under the city’s zoning ordinance as B-2, or "limited service business district." Churches are permitted uses in this zone only if they receive a special use permit from the city. After taking possession of the property the church applied to the city for a special use permit to allow it to use the property for church purposes. A zoning board recommended that the application be denied, and the city council concurred based on the city’s "comprehensive development plan" that targeted the area for development as a "commercial corridor." The concern of the council was that granting a special use permit for a noncommercial use, such as a church, would be at odds with the goals of the comprehensive plan. Although the city council denied the church’s application for a special use permit, the church continued to hold services in the building. Eventually, the city asked a court to issue an injunction prohibiting the church from using the building for church purposes. The church responded with several arguments, including the following: (1) the city’s denial of the special use permit violated the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom; (2) the church was merely continuing the Masons’ permitted nonconforming use of the property; and (3) the city’s denial of the special use permit was "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable" in light of the fact that use of the property for church purposes met the conditions for granting a special use permit. The trial court agreed with the church. It issued an injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its zoning laws against the church, and it also ordered the city to pay the church’s attorneys’ fees. The city appealed this ruling, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision. The church appealed to the state supreme court.

The supreme court began its opinion by observing,

In general, a special use is a type of property use that is expressly permitted within a zoning district by the controlling zoning ordinance so long as the use meets certain criteria or conditions. The purpose of special uses is to provide for those uses that are either necessary or generally appropriate for a community but may require special regulation because of unique or unusual impacts associated with them. A church may be an appropriate special use because, depending upon its size and location, it may create traffic or parking problems within the neighborhood in which it is located. For example, the number of parking spaces needed by a church may vary considerably depending upon the availability of parking spaces in the neighborhood at the time the church holds services. Thus, although a church might be considered a desirable and appropriate use within a zoning district, the municipality may classify it as a special use and may require, for example, that parking problems be resolved before granting a special use permit to a property owner that would allow the owner to use the property as a church.

The court noted that the city had denied the church’s request for a special use permit because it believed that all noncommercial uses were incompatible uses along the four-lane highway. The city council did not focus on any specific concern unique to the church. It "did not conclude, for example, that the church will impede the orderly development of surrounding properties or lower their value because the church building is unusually large, or because the church’s congregation generates traffic problems along the highway. Instead, the church’s application was denied because the council believed that any noncommercial use of property located in the highway corridor would have a negative effect on the commercial development of that corridor and, therefore, that all noncommercial uses should be completely excluded." The court continued,

Because special uses, as such, are considered compatible with other uses in the zoning district in which they are included, it is generally held that an application for a special use permit may not be denied on the ground that the use is not in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, a special use permit must be denied when it is determined from the facts and circumstances that the grant of the requested special exception use would result in an adverse effect upon adjoining and surrounding properties unique and different from the adverse effect that would otherwise result from the development of such a special exception use located anywhere within the zone. Thus, the appropriate standard to be used in determining whether a requested special exception use would have an adverse effect and, therefore, should be denied is whether there are facts and circumstances that show that the particular use proposed at the particular location proposed would have any adverse effects above and beyond those inherently associated with such a special exception use irrespective of its location within the zone. There is nothing of record in this case which would indicate that the church’s use of its property as a church would have any adverse effects on surrounding properties above and beyond those that would inherently be associated with any church located in the highway corridor …. The existence of the comprehensive plan, and the council’s reliance upon that plan, does not alter this conclusion.

Application. This case will be a helpful precedent to any church that has been denied a special use permit to use property for church purposes. If churches are a permitted use in a municipal zone with a special use permit, then a city cannot deny a permit in a particular case without specific evidence that the applicant’s use of the property for church purposes would result in an adverse impact to the area. A permit cannot be denied on the basis of a "master plan" that prohibits whole categories of uses without any consideration of the facts of each case. City of Chicago Heights v. Living Word Outreach Full Gospel Church and Ministries, Inc., 749 N.E.2d 916 (Ill. 2001).

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