Summary of Westchester Day School RLUIPA Decision
In applying RLUIPA to the decision by the Village of Mamaroneck Zoning Board of Appeals that denied a special permit to the Westchester Day School, the District Court responded to criticism contained in an earlier decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which remanded the District Court’s finding of an RLUIPA violation. Judge Connor found that the Zoning Board not only violated RLUIPA but violated the long standing rule under New York Law favoring both religious and educational uses.
Finding that the denial of the special permit substantially burdened the religious exercise of the Day School, the Court noted that under RLUIPA once there is a substantial burden on religious exercise the burden of proof shifts to the Zoning Board to demonstrate that the denial was in furtherance of a compelling state interest. The Court found that the Zoning Board had based its denial on claims of potential adverse impacts on traffic, parking, local property values and aesthetics. However, the Court determined that the traffic concerns were based upon the lay opinion of members of the Board and particularly the chair who admitted during trial that he had misunderstood several significant portions of the study. The Court repeatedly pointed out that the Board’s own traffic experts had not questioned the traffic study submitted by the school. As to parking it was pointed out by the Court that the School had actually reduced the number of parking spaces based upon recommendations by the Village and could have provided additional spaces if needed. The Court questioned the conclusions regarding property values and aesthetics and determined that even if such impacts existed they did not rise to a compelling state interest, which is required to defeat a RLUIPA claim.
The Second Circuit had remanded the original decision of the District Court on a motion for summary judgment finding that there were questions of fact and also suggesting that the District Court’s application of RLUIPA might be over broad. Therefore the decision was rendered after a seven day bench trial. Apparently in an effort to give the Second Circuit a basis for upholding its decision, even if the Second Circuit questioned the application of RLUIPA, the Court pointed out that New York case law favors both educational and religious uses. It therefore found that under New York Law the Day School qualified for consideration of the recognized beneficial effects as either a religious or an educational use and the Zoning Board had failed to establish a basis for denying the special permit use. It also noted that New York Law favors accommodating such uses and the record demonstrated that even were there concerns with respect to the application the Zoning Board could have approved the application with appropriate mitigating conditions.