• Key point 7-06.1. Most courts have ruled that churches have a legal right to locate in residential districts. Zoning Law and Churches
A New York court ruled that it was improper for a local zoning board to deny a church’s request for permission to build a new sanctuary in a residential area on the basis of community concerns over increased traffic congestion and water supply problems. A church sought a special use permit for the construction of a new church building. A local zoning board denied the application, citing concerns relating to traffic congestion, water supply, and incompatibility with the town’s zoning plan. A trial court reversed the zoning board’s decision, finding it to be arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion, and directed the issuance of the permit subject to reasonable conditions and safeguards. A state appeals court agreed. It made the following observation:
It is well settled that religious institutions are presumed beneficial to a community, and consequently proposed religious uses should be permitted absent convincing evidence that they pose a direct and immediate threat to public health, safety or welfare. [The town] offered no expert testimony to support its generalized claims of potential water and traffic problems …. While the record contains no evidentiary support for [the town’s] reasons for the denial, it does reveal considerable community opposition to the project. [However,] generalized community objection, without more, is an improper basis for denial of a special use permit.
Application. This case illustrates the view of many courts that churches cannot be denied special use permits to construct new buildings on the basis of “generalized fears” by neighboring landowners of traffic congestion, water pressure problems, noise, increased hazards to children, or reduction in property values. It is not uncommon for neighboring landowners to express such concerns, especially when a church desires to build a sanctuary in a residential area. But church leaders should understand that many courts have rejected such concerns as a basis for denying a church permission to build. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Planning Board, 687 N.Y.S.2d 794 (Sup. Ct. 1999).
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