Last week the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found a RLUIPA violation based upon a denial of a special permit to expand a church. In Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County Colorado the Circuit Court overturned the denial of a special permit application to significantly expand an existing church on the grounds that (1) the Church (RMCC) was not treated on equal terms with other applicants, (2) a substantial burden had been placed on the Church and (3) unreasonable limitations were placed upon the Church’s proposed expansion.
Significantly, the County had a long standing comprehensive plan which sought to maintain the rural character of the County. The legislation which implemented the comprehensive plan required a special permit for any project with an occupancy of 100 or more people in an Agricultural District. The criteria for the special permit had both objective (height requirements) and subjective (compatibility) criteria. The proposed application met the threshold requirements for a special permit and ultimately sought “a 28,000 square foot gymnasium, a 6,500 square foot chapel, expanding the school building by 57,500 square feet, gallery space connecting the buildings,and an expansion of the main worship building’s seating capacity by 150 seats.” The review by the County staff found compliance with the objective criteria but also found the project to be “incompatible with the surrounding area, an over-intensive use of the land, likely to cause undue traffic congestion, and likely detrimental to the welfare of the residents of Boulder County.”
The Circuit Court found that the staff had modified its methodology for determining if a proposal was over-intensive. The usual criteria was based upon a calculation of whether the expansion resulted in 50% or more of the property being covered by buildings and parking. The Court noted, in this case the coverage was only 35%, yet there was a determination by staff that the proposal was “over-intensive.” However, rather than using the coverage criteria, County staff determined the proposal was over-intensive because it doubled the church’s square footage and significantly increased parking. In reciting the facts, the Circuit Court made a point of noting that one of the Commissioners greeted a consultant for the Church privately before the public hearing stating “you can bring in your Christians now.” The final decision permitted the 150 seat expansion and 10,000 square foot building to replace the modular building but denied the balance of the application.