Bowing to Grace’s pressure
Pitkin County sure couldn’t win for losing in its legal battle with Grace Church. In fact, it lost for losing ” to the tune of $674,000.
The outcome was ironic: The same county that rejected Grace Church’s plans to build a 15,000-square-foot house of worship will now help fund its construction.
We understand the Board of County Commissioners had a huge mountain to climb if it wanted to prevail in its efforts to keep the big church from being built. Despite its rigid land-use codes, there’s a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which essentially protects religious groups from zoning laws.
That was Grace Church’s ace in the hole, and it paid off, some three years after the county originally rejected its proposal.
Even so, we have to question why the county let this game of poker last so long, only to fold at such a late stage. Didn’t county officials know about the RLUIPA when they rejected the original application?
There’s no doubt that Grace Church was armed with a team of lawyers who have successfully argued the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
County officials have said that under normal circumstances they’d be willing to spend whatever it took to defend their land-use code and even go to the highest court in the land, but when the chips were down, they walked away.
County attorneys said RLUIPA is legally bombproof and that it would be better to settle on a project of a size they could control than to lose at the federal level and see a mega-church in the valley.
Maybe so, but perhaps the county would have won by using the argument that it is a home-rule charter and its land-use code trumped the federal act employed by Grace Church. There’s also the chance it could have lost, and it would have shelled out a whole lot more money.
We’ll never know.
We do know, however, that this decision to cave in sends a message to other religious organizations that if they want to build a massive church in Pitkin County, they can. The precedent has been set, and religious organizations now know that any resistance from the county is nothing more than a bluff.
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The town of Snowmass Village has its eyes on some safety improvements on Highline Road and a section of Brush Creek Road that will give pedestrians and cyclists a little more room to breathe on the side of the road.