Not every religious land use case requires litigation. Every once in a while, a matter is resolved when a letter is sent to the planning director informing him or her about RLUIPA and its impact on a local government zoning regulations. That occurred this past week in De Pere, Wisconsin for our client, Life Church of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
By way of background, this story began on December 3, 2015, a date that will live in infamy for many Detroit Lions fans. Just a few weeks prior, the Detroit Lions beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau field – an unbelievable win as we have lost every single game in Green Bay since 1991. The Thursday night game was scheduled to be at Ford Field, our home field where our beloved Lions were on a winning streak and always played well on national television. It was our time to sweep the Packers in the 2016 season and make a run into the playoffs. The Lions came out strong and scored touchdown after touchdown while holding the Packers in the first half of the game. Yet while the Lions led the entire game, the Packers did what they always do: ran the field in the second half of the game, scored multiple touchdowns and with no time on the clock, won on hail Mary 60-yard missile into the end. Detroit suffered yet another humiliating and haunting loss.
Being one of the very few Detroit Lion fans that suffered through years of losses (yes, I watched every game of the worst season in the history of football), this loss had to be the hardest.
But something good came out of the loss. Earlier that day, Pastor Shawn Hennessey of Life Church Green Bay (and a Chaplin of the Green Bay Packers) contacted me because the church was denied zoning approval by the De Pere Plan Commission for a new building it purchased. Adding pressure to the issue was that the Church sold its existing building. Without having zoning approval for the new building, the Church was looking at being homeless.
A final hearing was scheduled before the City Council of De Pere, Wisconsin on December 15, 2015. I sent a letter to the City Council explaining the application of the Free Exercise Clause, and RLUIPA to the land use application and requested that they approve the zoning permit. Life Church organized a group of parishioners to attend the City Council meeting; many of who spoke on behalf of the ministry and after a three-hour hearing, the City Council approved the zoning application. The Church will have a new home this Easter. You can read more about it here http://gbpg.net/1NFRoVC, here http://bit.ly/1OhmFh4, and here http://gbpg.net/1NFRoVC.
There are two lessons learned from this experience. First as my good friend Matt Friedman always reminds me: never, ever, bet on the Detroit Lions. I always forget about this rule, bet on the Lions and end up buying him a really expensive dinner. While the Lions seem to find a way to lose, we fans will continue to hold out hope for “next year.”
Second, sometimes notice of RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause through a letter may be the information needed to tip a City Council into approving a zoning application for a religious use. While this plan of action does not always work, it has worked in a couple of cases with the resulting approvals granted without a lawsuit. If you have zoning issues related to your Church, please consider contacting the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you with looking at zoning problem and responding with a letter.
Thank you for following along with us this year and reading our blog. We look forward to working with you this coming year.