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Afresh Church v. City of Winchester

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

July 1, 2019

AFRESH CHURCH, Plaintiff
v.
CITY OF WINCHESTER, VIRGINIA, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL F. URBANSKI CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Afresh Church ("Afresh") filed this lawsuit on December 3, 2018, alleging that defendants, the City of Winchester, Virginia ("the City") and Aaron Grigsdale, the director of zoning and inspections for the City, are violating Afresh's rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. (RLUIPA). Pending are the City's motion for abstention and motion to dismiss, ECF Nos. 9, 11; Afresh's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 13; and the City's motion to defer consideration of the motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 17. The parties have briefed the issues and a hearing was held in this matter on April 10, 2019. As discussed more fully below, defendants' motion for abstention is DENIED; defendants' motion to dismiss is DENIED; Afresh's motion for summary judgment is DENIED without prejudice; and defendants' motion to defer consideration of the motion for summary judgment is DENIED as moot.

         BACKGROUND

         The complaint alleges that Afresh has a leasehold interest in a building ("the Building") owned by Fairmont Avenue Holdings, LLC ("the Owner"). Compl., ECF No. 12, ¶ 7. The Building is located in an area of Winchester designated as a "limited industrial district." Approximately 200 members of the Afresh congregation have been meeting at the Building on Sundays since April 2017. The City has cited the Owner of the Building several times for allowing the church services to be held at the Building because the area in which it is located is not zoned for churches. At the time the complaint was filed, the City had filed a summons for civil penalty in the City of Winchester General District Court seeking $2, 200 in fines from the Owner for violations of the zoning ordinance.

         The zoning ordinance allows for a wide variety of light industrial uses, such as the production of food products and toiletries, assembly of some textiles not employing a boiling process, manufacture of ceramic products, electric and neon signs, and musical instruments, and assembly of electrical appliances and automobiles. Article 11 - Limited Industrial District-M-1, ECF No. 10-1. In addition, it allows for some uses with a conditional permit, such as gymnastics studios, youth activity centers, bus terminals, animal shelters, arenas, amphitheaters, or stadiums, albeit with restrictions on how close some structures can be to residential districts. ECF No. 10-1 at 1-4. While church uses are not expressly prohibited by the ordinance, they are not included in the list of allowed businesses and activities.

         The Building's main tenant is the National Fruit Product Company, Inc. The company uses the Building as its corporate event center and meeting hall. Since 2014, the Owner also has allowed numerous non-profit groups to use the Building at no cost for events, gatherings, fundraisers, and other functions. The number of people in attendance at these events has ranged from 30 people to more than 2, 000 people.[1] ECF No. 14-1 ¶ 9.

         In its complaint, Afresh states that it has a leasehold interest in the building. Compl, ECF No. 12, ¶ 7. Afresh produced a copy of a lease on February 29, 2019, attached to the second declaration of Aaron Brewer. ECF No. 22-1 at 4-12. The timing of the lease is subject to some question. While the lease states that it "is made effective April 1, 2017," and is signed and dated as of that date, it states in a recital that "[t]his lease is being executed on November of 2018 to memorialize the agreement of the parties entered into on the Commencement Date." Id. at 4. The lease term is for five years, but "[e]ither party may terminate this Lease at any time for any reason by giving thirty days written notice to the other." Id., ¶ 6. The lessee has an obligation to indemnify the lessor for, among other things, failure to comply with any and all governmental ordinances and regulations applicable to the condition or use of the property or its occupancy. Id., ¶ 15.1.c.

         Afresh seeks a declaratory judgment that the City's zoning ordinance and its enforcement action against the Owner is violating Afresh's rights under RLUIPA. Afresh also seeks to enjoin the City from pursuing any enforcement or other action against the Owner of the property that would affect Afresh's ability to continue to use the Building.

         DISCUSSION

         RLUIPA provides in relevant part the following:

(a) Substantial burdens
(1) General rule
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution-
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
(2) Scope of application
This subsection applies in any case in which-
(C) the substantial burden is imposed in the implementation of a land use regulation or system of land use regulations, under which a government makes, or has in place formal procedures or practices that permit the government to make, individualized ...

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