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Ripeness Spoils Church’s Efforts

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 10/8/2010

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            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 Montgomery County run program called “One Night at a Time”.  “One Night at a Time” helped homeless persons find shelter for one (1) month during the winter.  For a reason unrelated to the case discussed herein, in 2005 Montgomery County discontinued the “One Night at a Time” program.  Instead, Montgomery County directed its homeless population to a local state hospital.  Unfortunately, it became apparent that the local state hospital was inadequate to meet the needs of the County’s efforts against homelessness, as overcrowding became a persistent problem.  In 2007, in response to the continued homelessness problems in Montgomery County, and the overcrowding of the state hospital, a Christian organization, called Ministries for Main Street, was formed to help combat homelessness.  The services offered by Ministries for Main Street were, in essence, the same as those offered by the “One Night at a Time” program.  As the Church was an active participant with the “One Night at a Time” program, it attempted to similarly participate in Ministries for Main Street.

            Before participating in Ministries for Main Street, the Church dutifully notified North Coventry Township (hereinafter “the Township”) of its intention to do so toward the end of 2007.  Although the Township had no objection to the Church’s participation in “One Night at a Time” two (2) years previous, the Township now, suddenly, objected to the Church’s participation in Ministries for Main Street, even though the Church was to provide the same services as before.  The Township’s objection primarily revolved around its allegation that the Church’s efforts with Ministries for Main Street would violate both the Township’s zoning laws and building codes.  Specifically, the Church was zoned for assembly purposes, and not as a residence as required to house the homeless even temporarily.  Additionally, the Township’s Fire Marshall sent a letter to the Church informing it that, considering the Church’s present zoning, it could not contain sleeping facilities pursuant to the applicable fire safety requirements.  As a result of the clear resistance of the Township, the Church elected not to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program.  The Township subsequently indicated to the Church that if the Church was interested in participating in the Ministries for Main Street program, it would need to apply for a variance from the zoning and/or building and/or fire codes.

            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 Main Street program.  After a number of postponements, and unsuccessful negotiations with the Township, the Church withdrew its aforesaid application.  Instead, the Church elected to pursue its goals through litigation and brought suit against the Township alleging the Township had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

            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. New Milford Zoing Commission, 402 F.3d 342 (2nd Cir. 2005).  In order to determine whether a matter is ripe when a land use issues arises from constitutional claims, such as the matter discussed herein, “the government entity charged with implementing the regulations [must reach] a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.”  See Williamson.  Based on the preceding, when applying the standard for ripeness, the Court investigated into whether the Township’s “decision maker”, in this case the Zoning Hearing Board, had reached a definitive position on the salient issues.  It is only upon the Zoning Hearing Board’s having reached an adverse decision against a land owner, in this case the Church, that a land owner is inflicted with an actual and recoverable injury which can serve as the basis for a civil action.  The Court developed the above standard because it did not to want the Court to devolve into becoming a glorified land use board dealing with effectively local issues.  It wanted to ensure that the local zoning boards would be the primary places where land use issues, such as the one in the matter at hand, are dealt with and resolved.  Indeed, the Court specifically indicated its belief that the local boards are in a better position to make local decisions than the Court.  Therefore, an issue is only ripe if a final decision is rendered by the local authority and/or it can be proven that the pursuit of a variance would be a futile effort.

            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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  • 10/19/2010 by Sara Gift

    So this means that youth group lock-ins and sleepovers are banned as well?

  • 10/20/2010 by James W. Cushing, Esquire

    I would doubt it as I am sure a distinction can be made between, essentially housing someone and a fun youth-activity.

  • 10/20/2010 by James W. Cushing, Esquire

    I would also note that we do not know what is and what is not banned by the ordinances exactly per the point of the case described above; the Church never pursued the administrative remedies available to it to answer these sorts of questions. The moral of this story is to first exhaust your administrative remedies first before heading to Court.

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