The Town of Greenburgh has agreed to pay a reported record setting 6.5 million dollars to settle the RLUIPA claims of Fortress Bible Church. The long saga of the claims against the Town of Greenburgh (located in Westchester County, New York), which we have reported at length in this Blog, reached a settlement on December 16 when the Town Board approved the settlement with only 1 million of the 6.5 million dollar settlement covered by insurance.
The case arose out of the request by Fortress Bible for approval to construct a new church on property it acquired in the Town. The Town engaged in a lengthy SEQRA review only to reject the application. Once Fortress Bible brought suit the Town made a number of claims, including that SEQRA was not a land use regulation within the meaning of RLUIPA. After a bench trial, the Town’s claims were rejected and the Federal District Court found the Town had, among other things, violated RLUIPA. On appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, that court, in affirming the District court, stated:
“The Town’s own Planning Commissioner (subsequently replaced by the Town) believed that the alleged environmental impacts did not warrant a positive declaration, but the Town initiated the SEQRA review process anyway after the Church refused to accede to the Town’s demand that it donate a fire truck or provide some other payment in lieu of taxes. The Town then manipulated its SEQRA findings statement to “kill” the project on the basis of zoning concerns despite the fact that there were no serious environmental impacts. We decline to insulate the Town from liability with regard to its decisions on zoning issues simply because it decided them under the rubric of an environmental quality review process.”
With a hearing on damages scheduled, the Town and Fortress Bible have now reached a settlement.
Thanks to Nick Ward-Willis of Keane and Beane, who was one of the attorneys representing the Church, for keeping my up to date on the status of this matter over the last several years.