• 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 Connecticut appeals court ruled that a city zoning commission acted improperly in denying a church’s application for a special use permit to construct a new sanctuary in a residential neighborhood. A congregation comprised of 90 members applied for a special use permit to authorize the construction of a 200-seat sanctuary on a 5-acre tract of land in a residential area. The sanctuary would be used as a house of worship for Sunday morning services, midweek meetings and occasional weddings. For about ten years prior to filing the application for a special permit, the church conducted services in a rented community building. The zoning commission conducted a public hearing to allow citizens to voice their opinions regarding the church’s special permit application. Several people spoke in opposition to the permit. Many argued that no public building should be permitted in a single-family residential neighborhood and that a “huge public building” did not make sense in the neighborhood. Others feared the increased traffic, noting that many people walk, jog, and ride bicycles or horses along the road. Several people did not want the increased traffic on their rural road and thought that houses of worship should be built in villages or in more commercial areas adjacent to state highways. One homeowner stated, “Our neighborhood is unusual and special because it is so very quiet and peaceful and natural. It is apparent that the presence of a church would destroy the peace and quiet of our beautiful place.” A real estate appraiser testified that the construction of the church would have an adverse effect on property values. After further consideration, the commission denied the church’s permit request on the basis of the following factors: (1) decrease in property values; (2) increased traffic, which in turn would create a traffic hazard; and (3) a church would be “out of harmony” with the neighborhood. The church appealed to a state appeals court.
The court began its opinion by noting that a zoning commission’s denial of a special use permit must be accepted by the courts so long as it is supported by “substantial evidence.” The court concluded that this standard was not met, and so the commission’s denial of the church’s application for a special use permit had to be reversed.
The court concluded that an alleged “decline in property values” was not a substantial basis for the commission’s decision to deny the permit. It observed, “To deny the church a special exception because a house of worship per se devalues property in a residential neighborhood is contrary to the zoning regulations themselves, which permit houses of worship to be located in residential areas only …. Where regulations permit the use here, a conclusive presumption arises that the use per se cannot adversely affect the zone in which it is to be conducted.”
out of harmony
The commission also based its rejection of the special use permit on the ground that a church would be “out of harmony” with the neighborhood. The court concluded that this basis was not supported by substantial evidence: “The application of zoning regulations to restrict religious uses raises concern over the possible infringement of the constitutional rights guaranteed by the free exercise of religion clauses. The courts have been reluctant to uphold the strict enforcement, against religious uses, of regulations that require special exception uses, to be in architectural harmony with the surrounding neighborhood.” The court noted that the “neighborhood” included several varieties of homes, a weathered barn, an aluminum house trailer covered with a blue tarp and a two-story, prefabricated commercial building surrounded by trucks and heavy equipment. The court concluded that the church would not be “out of harmony” with these buildings.
The commission also based its rejection of the special use permit on the ground that a church would expose residents to increased risk due to the additional traffic. Once again, the court concluded that there was substantial evidence in support of this conclusion. It noted that the city’s “expert witness” had testified at the public hearing that a church would have a minimal effect on traffic safety.
Application. It is common for city zoning commissions to deny churches’ requests for special use permits as a result of concerns over property values and public safety. This case will be a helpful precedent for other churches to use whose applications for special use permits are denied on these or similar grounds. Bethlehem Christian Fellowship, Inc. v. Planning and Zoning Commission, 807 A.2d 1089 (Ct. App. 2002).
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