Ripeness Spoils Church’s Efforts
James W. Cushing, Esq. on 10/8/2010
About The Author
Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C.
In the matter of Shenkel United Church of Christ v. North Coventry Township, 2009 WL 3806769, Shenkel United Church of Christ (“the Church”), has recently found its efforts to fight homelessness spoiled by the doctrine of ripeness.
In order to fulfill its Biblical mandate to care for the needy among us, the Church, for several years, participated in a
Before participating in Ministries for
Instead of requesting a variance, in October 2008 the Church elected to file an application with the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, requesting a determination that it did not need a variance to participate in the Ministries for
In reaching its decision, the Court never addressed the substantive allegations made by the Church. Instead, the Court refocused the matter onto whether the matter is, ultimately, a land use issue. Consequently, the Court focused on whether the Church’s claims against the Township were ripe in the context of a land use matter. When enunciating the standard for ripeness, the Court cited to Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985) and Murphy v.
The Church argued that the above enunciated ripeness standard ought not apply; it argued, instead, that the instant matter is not about land use and, therefore, another ripeness standard should apply. To that end, the Church argued that the standard laid out in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc. v. Wyse Technology, 912 F.2d 643 (3rd Cir. 1990) was the appropriate standard by which the Court should render its decision. The key distinction between the standard laid out above, and the standard established in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc., is that the matter at issue in Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc. took place in the context of a declaratory judgment as opposed to the context of a land use matter. Under Step-Saver Data Systems, Inc., the analysis would be to determine whether: (1) the parties’ interests are sufficiently adverse; (2) the court can issue a conclusive ruling in light of potentially evolving factual developments; and (3) the decision will render practical help the parties. The Church asserted that the instant matter was, in fact, a declaratory judgment matter as it was seeking declaratory and/or injunctive relief of a pre-enforcement matter.
When rendering its decision, the Court simply did not find the Church’s arguments, or the cases it cited in support of the same, persuasive in the face of the Township’s assertion that the matter is, at its core, a land use matter. Specifically, the Court stated that since the Church’s action against the Township centered directly upon how the Township’s Zoning Officer and Fire Marshall applied the zoning regulations to the Church’s proposed use of its land; based upon this, the Court indicated, it was clear that the matter was, at its core, a land use matter as opposed to some sort of declaratory judgment matter. To sum up its rationale, the Court explained that “[s]ince the Church has not stated a facial challenge to the Township ordinances, the Church is essentially asking this Court to rule on the application of those ordinances before the Township itself has had the opportunity to do so.” A question of the application of ordinances for the use of land is, therefore by definition, a land use matter and the Williamson standard applies. It is worth noting that the Court mentioned, as dictum, that it may not have reached a different decision even if it used the cases the Church citied to in support of its position. How that would play out, of course, may never be known.
Allowing the matter to proceed to ripeness has a fourfold positive effect on a matter such as the one discussed herein. First, it allows for the local authority to render a decision and develop a complete record. Second, it is only after the pursuit of the variance process will the property owner, and the court by extension, know how the ordinances will be applied. Third, the variance needed may actually be granted which would, of course, eliminate the need for judicial entanglement into the affairs of a church. Fourth, it reinforces a basic federal principle that land use disputes are uniquely a matter of local concern as opposed to that of a Court.
The Court ultimately decided that the Church’s matter was simply not ripe enough to hear at this time. The Court noted that as the Church failed to pursue a variance, withdrew is application to the zoning board wherein it asserted that it did not need an application, and never pursued any sort of appeal of the Zoning Board or Fire Marshall’s decisions, that the Church never let the matter reach any decision at any level previous to bringing a civil action. Due to these decisions made by the Church, the Court ruled that the Church never permitted its matter to ripen sufficiently to warrant the engagement of the Court in such a matter.
In the final analysis, the central matter in this case is whether the question at issue is a land use matter or a declaratory judgment matter. For the reasons noted above, the Court decided it was a land use matter and that the Church did not permit the matter to sufficiently ripen to warrant a civil action. The principle to take away from the decision discussed herein is that, when dealing with a land use issue, all local administrative remedies must be exhausted before initiating a civil action.
Finally, one of the issues never addressed by the decision discussed herein, and one that this author thinks is rather peculiar, is why the Church was permitted to house the homeless when it participated “One Night at a Time” program but not permitted to do the same in the Ministries for Main Street program, even though the Church’s facilities were substantially the same at all times material to the case. This clearly apparent, unexplainable, and seemingly arbitrary change in the Township’s policy toward the Church seems to this author to involve more than just a land use issue; in actuality, it would seem that the religious freedom of a Church to achieve its social goals in the community is at issue. Perhaps if further investigation was done to determine why the Church was suddenly restricted from performing a service it performed for many years without the Township’s interference, a fresh perspective on whether the matter was actually ripe could have stopped the spoiling of the Church’s efforts to combat homelessness.
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