RLUIPA claim of religious order not ripe for adjudication

by Gary Taylor

Miles Christi Religious Order v. Township of Northville, Michigan
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, December 21, 2010)

Plaintiffs owned a house where several of the brothers and fathers of a religious order lived.  They conducted private services and hosted Bible studies.  Several neighbors complained about the number of cars parked on the grass area during these times.  The township wrote a letter asking plaintiffs to provide a description of the activities taking place at the residence and a parking plan.  Plaintiffs did not submit a plan but informed the zoning administrator that they did not have the space to add parking in the back of their property.  As a result, they were told to submit an application requesting a variance to allow parking in the front yard as well as to submit a site plan that would detail the intended expansion of parking spaces.  Plaintiffs failed to submit a site plan, and subsequently were issued a citation for violating the local ordinance that governed site plan review procedures. 

Rather than appeal the citation or apply to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) for a variance Plaintiffs filed a claim in federal court challenging the legality of the zoning ordinances as applied to their situation.   Plaintiffs invoked the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as well as the Michigan State Constitution.  The federal district court held Plaintiffs’ case was not ripe for judicial resolution, in that they had not taken their case to the ZBA, and further that Plaintiffs’ failed to demonstrate that they would suffer irreparable hardship by delaying a federal court decision until they did so.  Plaintiffs appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit. 

To decide whether a dispute is ripe for judicial resolution, the court asks – (1) is the dispute “fit” for a court decision in that it arises in “a concrete factual context” and involves “a dispute that is likely to come to pass” and (2) “what are the risks to the claimant if the federal courts stay their hand?”  In the land-use context, the requirements of a concrete factual context and a dispute that is likely to come to pass “converge in an insistence on ‘finality,’ an insistence that the relevant administrative agency resolve the appropriate application of the zoning ordinance to the property in dispute.”

The religious order conceded that it had not gone to the ZBA to determine whether the ordinances required it to submit a site plan and, if so, which regulations imposed this obligation and why. The religious order also did not deny that the administrative process allows residents to seek a variance. Instead, they argued that the township’s request that they provide a site plan amounted to the kind of final decision necessary to overcome ripeness concerns. The 6th Circuit concluded that this position did not square with the relevant regulations. An administrative appeal to the ZBA would resolve at least three questions about the religious order’s obligations or whether it has any obligations at all, and that an appeal to the ZBA may help Plaintiffs because the ZBA may grant it a variance or provide a different intensive-use determination.

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