Church’s effort to collect $1.5M from Pitkin County fails
EMMA – The Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t entitled to $1.5 million in damages from Pitkin County for delaying construction of a place of worship in Emma, a federal district judge has ruled.
Monday’s decision by Senior District Judge Richard P. Matsch could end a dispute, started in 2003, that featured a claim by the congregation that the county commissioners were interfering with their constitutional right to freedom of religion. Robert Lees, the attorney for Grace Church, said his clients have 10 days from the decision to determine if they will appeal.
Grace Church bought the former Gredig property adjacent to the old Emma schoolhouse in 2003 and soon submitted an application that turned controversial. Many neighbors, including the Emma Caucus, objected to the location of the church in a rural area because of the traffic it would generate.
The county commissioners in May 2005 denied the church’s special-use application. The church filed a lawsuit in 2006, alleging the decision violated the congregation’s civil rights. Church Pastor Terry Maner and member E. Wayne Starr were also plaintiffs.
The county and church settled in June 2008, with the county allowing the congregation to build a 15,000-square-foot facility and paying nearly $675,000. In return, the church dropped part of the lawsuit.
The church maintained that it suffered financially because of the delay in the approval and it sought compensatory damages, Lees said. The lawsuit ended up in federal court.
The board of county commissioners, as a government body, was named as defendants, as were commissioners Michael Owsley, Patti Kay-Clapper and Jack Hatfield, as well as former commissioners Dorothea Farris and Mick Ireland, individually. Ireland and Farris were part of the board that initially voted to deny approval for the church.
The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission also was named as a defendant because it advised denial to the county. Basalt and Pitkin County have an agreement which gives the other entity advisory powers in a referral process on land-use issues of mutual interest.
Judge Matsch granted the town’s request for a summary judgment dismissing the case against it because Basalt’s recommendation was merely advisory, Basalt Town Attorney Tom Smith said.
The case against the county was more complicated. The church claimed its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was violated. The act prohibits implementing land-use regulation in a way that imposes “substantial burden on religious exercise, applying it in a manner treating the church on less-than-equal terms with nonreligious assembly, discriminating against it on the basis of religion, and imposing unreasonable limitations.”
The judge’s decision noted the county ultimately granted approval for the church and was protected by a “safe harbor provision,” Smith noted. That provision essentially says, “If you interfere with rights but fix it, you’re OK,” he said.
Matsch wrote that the county’s settlement eliminated any claim that the county violated the church’s religious rights. However, he also noted that the decision could be challenged in appeal, so he ruled on each of the plaintiffs’ 10 claims in the lawsuit.
Matsch found that the county delay in granting approval for the church didn’t constitute a substantial burden on religious rights, or that nonreligious applications for similar development were treated differently.
“The land-use decision did not prevent the plaintiffs from assembling or engaging in their religious practices within the county,” the order says. “As discussed below, the plaintiffs were not treated in a discriminatory manner. The plaintiffs were not pressured to abandon their beliefs or forego religious conduct. The only effect on religious exercise resulting from the denial of the special-use application was that the church could not use this particular property for its religious purposes.”
Grace Church has been renting space in the Eagle County government building in El Jebel to worship on Sundays. Construction of its church stalled during the recession, but exterior work resumed this summer. Lees was uncertain how much of the interior has been completed.
Pastor Maner said in an e-mail that the church will hold services at the new facility “soon.”
“We’re eager to move forward and give our full energies and resources to the work to which God has called us here in the Roaring Fork Valley,” he wrote.
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