Emma Caucus sues county, Grace Church
EMMA ” A bitter battle is shaping up over a proposed church in Emma.
In the wake of a recent county settlement approving a 15,000-square-foot facility along Highway 82 in Emma, local caucus members filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley Inc.
In 2005, the county board denied an application for a new Grace Church in Emma. (The parish currently rents space in El Jebel.) Church officials then filed a federal lawsuit claiming the board violated their civil rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUPA), which protects religious institutions.
Fearing a big loss in federal courts, the county board agreed to a settlement on Jan. 9 that overturns the 2005 denial and allows approximately 15,000 square feet of new buildings and 197 parking spaces on the 18-acre site. Emma is downvalley from Basalt.
“This property is really not the right place for an institution this size,” said Emma Caucus chairman George Newman.
In the lawsuit, Emma residents claim that county commissioners abused their discretion by overturning a two-year-old decision (well beyond the standard 30 days to appeal), and approved the church building without reviewing any new application or new evidence.
The project violates the county land use code and the downvalley master plan, and does not maintain the rural character of the area, according to the lawsuit.
Emma residents are asking the courts to reverse the recent approval to build and to place a hold on any building permits until the matter is settled, according to court papers.
“We’re not going after the church or anything,” said David Kelley, an Emma resident and attorney for the group.
Commissioners have denied two separate commercial applications for the site, Kelly said, and the lawsuit is not about denying anyone the right to practice their faith.
“Anybody who was asking for 197 parking spaces and 15,000 square feet we would oppose,” Kelly said.
“We’re not surprised by this,” said Robert A. Lees, a Denver attorney representing Grace Church. “We’re disappointed, but we’re not surprised.”
Lees is reviewing the lawsuit and will take action by 5 p.m. Monday, he said.
Neither Terry Maner, pastor of Grace Church, nor county attorney John Ely could be reached for comment Thursday.
Kelly said during the years the county has worked to preserve open space in Emma ” everything from the Grange property to the Rio Grande Trail ” and said he understands county officials were under pressure to settle the case.
However, Kelly believes the county should not bow to the church or the threat of a federal lawsuit.
“They’re thinking that their land use code cannot survive a RLUPA attack, and I don’t think that’s the case,” Kelly said. “I think they should give it a go in trial. Based on the case law, I think they’ve got a good case.”
Kelly said that a county loss in federal court would not mean the church could build whatever it wanted.
“I don’t think any of the resolutions in the federal court say you can build anything you want to build,” Kelly said.
The caucus lawsuit is not just about disgruntled neighbors, Kelly said. Caucus members are interested in stopping a precedent for allowing religious institutions carte blanche to push through “oppressive commercial use” outside the bounds of local land use codes.
“[County commissioners] basically approved an application that wasn’t in front of them and didn’t go through the proper process,” Kelly said.
Emma residents would be open to a number of compromises, Newman said, anything from sale of the property, to an exchange of land for a more suitable site, to other plans to modify any proposed building.
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Highway 82 is closed in both directions Wednesday morning after a multiple vehicle crash, according to a Pitkin County alert.