• Key point. In some states the courts use greater flexibility in evaluating zoning requests by churches, and attempt to “accommodate” such requests.
A New York court ruled that a church was entitled to a “variance” permitting it to use property for religious purposes even though there were fewer parking spaces than mandated by zoning law. A church purchased property and applied for a building permit to authorize construction of a new sanctuary. Its application was denied by a local zoning board on the ground that the proposed facility had less than 50 percent of the required number of parking spaces mandated by local zoning law. The church asked for a “variance” (or exception) from the law on the ground that many of its members were transported to church services on the church’s vans, and as a result there was not a need for the legally required number of parking spaces. The zoning board refused to grant a variance. It noted that the congregation could increase in size or the number of people using the vans could decrease. In either case, the need for parking spaces would be acute. The church appealed, and a court ordered that the variance be issued and that the church be allowed to proceed with its construction plans. The court observed: “It is well settled that, while religious institutions are not exempt from local zoning laws, greater flexibility is required in evaluating an application for a religious use than an application for another use and every effort to accommodate the religious use must be made.” The court added: “It is incumbent upon a local zoning board to suggest measures to accommodate the proposed religious use while minimizing the adverse effects on the surrounding community to the greatest extent possible. Here … the proposed religious use could have been accommodated by granting the variance subject to conditions limiting … the number of persons attending services or the number of services or meetings per week.” The court concluded that the zoning board had failed to make any effort to accommodate the church’s use of its property, and accordingly the board’s decision denying the variance was “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” Genesis Assembly of God v. Davies, 617 N.Y.S.2d 202 (A.D. 2 Dept. 1994). [ Zoning Law and Churches]
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