California church wins building battle
Religious Liberty | Judge dismisses lawsuit over the zoning of an old YMCA
by Steve West
Posted 11/17/20, 12:09 pm
Residents of the Dos Vientos neighborhood in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said yes to the YMCA but no to a church that wanted to rent its building when the health and fitness center shut down. When the city of Thousand Oaks approved the sale and subsequent lease of the old YMCA to Godspeak Calvary Chapel, neighbors formed the Dos Vientos Community Preservation Association to oppose it. After a more than two-year battle, a Ventura County judge dismissed the association’s lawsuit last week.
In his opinion, Judge Matthew Guasco agreed with the city of Thousand Oaks that the Dos Vientos Community Preservation Association could not force a nonprofit foundation to obtain an amended development permit to lease the facility to the church because it was compatible with the existing zoning ordinance.
Declining membership and annual operating losses of $100,000 led the YMCA to close and sell its facility to Heavenly Father’s Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit, for $2.85 million. The foundation intended to lease it to Godspeak Calvary Chapel, pastored by former Thousand Oaks mayor Rob McCoy. McCoy told the Ventura County Star that he is a close friend of the foundation’s founder, Texas billionaire Dan Wilks.
Godspeak renovated the building and opened it in September 2018. Dos Vientos Community Preservation Association filed a suit trying to stop the lease. A judge dismissed that suit in October 2018 on procedural grounds but allowed the group to refile the case.
Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver noted the preservation association raised no similar objection to a nearby Jewish synagogue and said the lawsuit was frivolous: “The city of Thousand Oaks followed the law, but a small handful of people want the city to violate zoning laws and federal laws to discriminate against the use of the building for religious services.”
At a December 2017 city council meeting, about 20 residents raised concerns about the church’s potential effect on traffic, parking, noise, and property values. “This doesn't have anything to do with religion. We want to make sure we get that out there,” local real estate agent Raymi Schwartz told the Ventura County Star. She went on to say, “We are a very inclusive community, a very diverse community and we don’t want anything up here that only one type of being can go to. Anything in there, everybody should be able to utilize. And everybody will not be able to utilize that.”
Zoning disputes between churches and religious schools and surrounding communities are not uncommon. Sometimes a municipality wants to make another use of the property such as when a south Dallas suburb sought to take a church’s land by eminent domain for a firehouse. Other times, restrictive zoning ordinances treat businesses more favorably than churches. Less often, other members of the community oppose religious groups, like when a New York town tried to stop the expansion of an Orthodox Jewish school.
Disputes like that led Congress in 2000 to enact the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The act prohibits zoning laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other groups unless the government proves a compelling interest and uses the least restrictive means possible.
In October 2018, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced an initiative to better enforce RLUIPA’s land use provisions and strengthening public awareness of them. Staver said the law and the initiative have minimized zoning disputes between places of worship and local communities.
McCoy and Godspeak have been in the news for other reasons since the pandemic took hold: The church faces fines and contempt for defying a court order enforcing California’s restrictions on indoor gathering for worship. That matter remains in litigation.
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.