Divine purposes do not give developers a free pass to circumvent local zoning regulations. 

The Second District Court of Appeal has ruled that Los Angeles County was entitled to a court order that prohibited a church from operating a school without a required conditional user permit.

The Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Church owns two parcels zoned R-1 (single-family residential) in the San Gabriel Valley. In May 2008, the church filed an application for a conditional use permit to operate an 800-student, K-12 school on the property. Four months later, the county received complaints that the school was operating in advance of the issuance of the conditional use permit and without California Environmental Quality Act review.

The county conducted an inspection, verified that the school was operating, and issued a notice of violation giving the school 15 days to cease operation. Within this 15-day period, the church applied for a "clean hands waiver" from the county, which would allow the school to remain open during the pendency of the use permit review and processing. The county denied the waiver request. The county then issued a final code enforcement order directing that the school cease operating within 15 days. The church appealed this order, but the county denied the appeal. Following subsequent verification in late 2008 that the school was still operating, the county filed a code enforcement action and sought a preliminary injunction to close the school. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jan Pluim granted the preliminary injunction, prohibiting the school from using the property until all necessary permits were in place. Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School appealed.

The appellate decision addressed the interface of local zoning regulation with the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) (42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)-(b).) The first issue for the court was whether the county's requirement for a conditional use permit and the denial of the clean hands waiver violated RLUIPA's "substantial burden" test. Reviewing a number of decisions from other states, the unanimous, three-judge appellate panel concluded that the necessity for a conditional use permit and the denial of the clean hands waiver did not coerce or affect an individual's practice of faith and, therefore, was not an unreasonable burden.

"No Supreme Court case holds the failure to comply with a neutral zoning application process is a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedoms," Presiding Justice Paul Turner wrote for the court. 

The church argued that the county's denial of the clean hands waiver was improper because the county had granted 50 waiver requests from faith-based and non-faith-based entities. (The county had also denied 23 such requests.)

The county successfully argued that it had a sufficient factual basis upon which it could justify approving waivers for other applicants but denying this particular request. For one thing, the granted waivers were for activities in locations which would not have the same level of adverse impacts to surrounding uses as would the school. For another, the county had denied a waiver to a different church next to a residential neighborhood because of traffic and parking concerns. 

"Thus, the clean hands waiver application in this case could be denied without violating the [RLUIPA] act. There is no evidence any other entity seeking to use the property would be treated any differently," Turner wrote. 

A civil rights lawsuit filed by the church against the county remains pending in federal court. 

The Case:

County of Los Angeles v. Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, No. B216888, 188 Cal.App.4th 851, 2010 DJDAR 14846. Filed September 22, 2010

The Lawyers:

For Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School: Richard J. Kahdeman, Kahdeman & Nickel, (818) 597-9996

For the county: Dusan Pavlovic, county counsel's office, (213) 974-1900

--William W. Abbott