In 1996, Congregation Etz Chaim began holding worship services, without a proper city permit, in a single-family house in a residential area. After neighbors objected, the city denied requests for zoning variances and a conditional-use permit.
The congregation appealed, but the city council denied the applications.
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Then the congregation filed a lawsuit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The city and the congregation eventually entered into a compromise settlement.
The agreement allowed the congregation to use the house for worship upon restoring its neighborhood character, including double-pane windows, fencing, landscaping, no signs, and limits on the size of gatherings. The settlement prohibits weddings, receptions, banquets, funerals, fundraising and daycare activities.
Then the congregation applied for a city building permit to expand the house from 3,400 square feet to 8,150 square feet. The city building department spent three months reviewing the permit application. The city attorney also reviewed the plans. After the congregation agreed to several changes, the city building permit was issued.
The congregation immediately began work, tearing down all the house walls except two. A week later, after neighbors complained, the city issued a stop-work notice. The city said the building permit was issued “in error or in violation of other provisions of the code and conditions are such that the action should not have been allowed.”
Then the congregation sued the city to enforce its settlement agreement and to lift the stop-work order.
If you were the judge would you order the city stop-work order lifted?
The judge said yes!
After a long history of litigation in this case, the judge began, the congregation and the city signed a settlement agreement allowing renovation of the house for worship services, but with many conditions attached.
The congregation then applied for a building permit, which, after three months of review by the city building department and the city attorney, was issued, the judge reported.
When the congregation began work under its building permit, complaints from neighbors caused the city to issue a stop-work order, the judge explained. But there is no evidence the congregation violated the terms of the settlement agreement or the building permit, he continued.
“A developer’s right to develop property pursuant to its proposed plans vests when: (1) a valid building permit issues and (2) the developer performs substantial work and incurs substantial liabilities in good faith reliance on the permit,” the judge emphasized.
The application for the city building permit clearly indicated the size of the congregation’s new building, the settlement agreement, and it was submitted to both the building department and the city attorney’s office, he explained.
A city can be equitably stopped from revoking a building permit after the property owner in good faith relies on that government act and proceeds to develop the property according to the approved plans, the judge ruled. Therefore, the city must lift its stop-work order and allow the congregation to proceed with construction according to its approved plans, the judge concluded.
Based on the 2004 U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Congregation Etz Chaim v. City of Los Angeles, 371 Fed.3d 1122.
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