Churches And Property: Understanding The Land Use Component Of The Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)



Land use entitlements in California are affected by countless regulations, enactments, and policies. In every jurisdiction, would be developers face zoning, subdivision, and environmental compliance requirements. Some cities and counties require special permits — variances, conditional use permits, site plan review, and everything in between — to authorize the use of land. Compliance with these requirements can be time consuming, expensive, and exhausting. It is no surprise that developers often pray for relief from the most burdensome requirements. In some cases — religious uses, in particular — those prayers for relief have been granted.

Federal law requires that a local government establish a compelling governmental interest before imposing or implementing a land use regulation that imposes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise. While the law was originally enacted to prevent municipalities from using zoning laws to discriminate against churches, even local governments with the best of intentions have struggled with the land use implications presented by applications for church uses.

There are a myriad of questions that would normally be considered by planners and City and County decisionmakers in their review of any land use entitlement application. These questions are presented in any context, regardless of the use proposed. For example: Is this use appropriate for an industrial park or a neighborhood strip mall? Will it conflict with the relative peace and quiet of a residential neighborhood? Is there an adult-oriented business nearby? How many parking spaces are required? Will the use cause traffic problems? While the relevance of these types of questions to land use planners cannot be disputed, in the case of churches, and other religious uses, the proverbial devil is in the details. If project conditions are incorrectly imposed or implemented, the local government could run afoul of federal law.

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