Agreement limits extent of church expansion
The Medina City Council Tuesday, Feb. 5, approved a settlement agreement with Woodridge Church that dismisses the church’s lawsuit against the city relating to the church’s ability to expand its building at 1500 County Road 24. The church was required to execute the agreement by Jan. 25.
In his court order, Chief Judge Michael J. Davis, of the U.S. District Court, dismissed the case “with prejudice without costs, disbursements, or attorney’s fees to any party.” Dismissing a matter with prejudice means that neither party can refile the case. The two parties went into settlement negotiations after meeting with a mediation judge last fall.
The settlement agreement limits future expansion of Woodridge Church to 85,000-square-feet and 400 parking stalls. Currently the church occupies 28,069-square-feet and has 296 parking stalls. An architect’s drawing showing a two-phase expansion is part of the agreement. The first phase would add 20,446-square-feet and 11 parking stalls, and the second phase would add 36,485-square-feet and 115 parking stalls. The two phases would form a compact unit with the current building. Two septic tank sites are shown in the southeast corner of the site.
Attorney George C. Hoff, who represented Medina, said prior to the City Council meeting, “The settlement is in the best interest of the city of Medina.” One reason is that Medina will not be paying monetary damages. He cited attorney/client privilege as he declined to comment further.
In its original complaint against the city, Woodridge Church asked for “compensatory and nominal damages to redress past legal injuries.”
Contacted before the meeting, Medina Mayor Tom Crosby said, “Both sides gain certainty about the future.” Also neighbors now can have an idea about what to expect when the two-phase expansion is completed.
The settlement agreement requires Woodridge to go through Medina’s regular approval process for a variance from zoning regulations, including public hearings before the Planning Commission. The church must apply for the variance within 60 days of the date that the city of Medina executes the settlement agreement. People who live near the church will have opportunities to learn about the proposed expansion and make comments. The settlement calls for notifying all property owners within 1,000 feet of the church property.
Medina is allowed to attach conditions to the variance to make it consistent with city codes and the comprehensive plan. If the city were to deny the variance, the settlement agreement would become “null and void.” The church “shall not bring any claim against the city for denial of the variance; the only remedy being reinstatement of the lawsuit,” the settlement agreement says.
Woodridge Church sits on 27.6 acres east of Medina City Hall in what was originally a Rural Residential zoning district. Since June 2009, both the church and City Hall have been located in a new Rural Public/Semi-Public zoning district. The new district limits the size of churches and public institutions in non-sewered residential areas.
The zoning change took place while Woodridge was getting ready to apply for a conditional use permit (CUP) to expand in a Rural Residential area. Originally, the church wanted to expand its current 28,000-square-foot building to 47,000-square-feet in the first of two phases. Working with architects, builders and city officials, the church trimmed the first phase expansion to 42,500-square-feet.
Before Woodridge could bring its CUP application before the Medina Planning Commission, the City Council placed a temporary moratorium on expansion of churches or building of new ones in a Rural Residential zone. Just prior to ending the moratorium, the City Council created the new Rural Public/Semi-Public zoning district. Regulations for the new RPSP zone capped the size of buildings at 40,000-square-feet.
Shortly after that Woodridge Church brought in Attorney Joel Oster, of the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF), to file a lawsuit against the city of Medina. The mission of the ADF is to build alliances between Christian attorneys and “like-minded organizations” to “protect and defend” religious freedom, according to the ADF website.
In Woodridge’s complaint against the city, church attorneys said that Medina had violated the congregation’s first amendment religious freedoms, 14th amendment rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law intended to protect religious institutions from discriminatory land use decisions by government bodies, including cities.
Prior to the start of settlement negotiations in 2012, Attorney Oster explained in an interview how the RLUIPA applies to the Woodridge/Medina case. He said the U.S. Constitution protects churches from land use decisions that interfere with their right to assemble and to practice their faith. “Churches practice their faith on land,” he said.
The RLUIPA is the same federal law that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka invoked in its recent lawsuit against the city of Wayzata. After several years of legal sparring, the two parties settled the lawsuit in December 2011. The Unitarian Church resorted to the lawsuit after Wayzata had denied its application to move from its site across from Wayzata City Hall to a residential area overlooking Highway 12. The settlement agreement required the city and its insurers to pay the church $500,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
Medina Mayor Crosby commented about the Woodridge/Medina case. “The city was aware of the outcome of the Wayzata church location law suit and was concerned about the uncertainties of litigation,” he said.
“We believe the (Woodridge/Medina) settlement serves both sides well,” he said. “It gives the church guidelines and parameters for future growth and gives to the city a complex which it believes consistent for a residential zoned area. The uncertainties of federal regulations governing relationships between religious institutions and a city’s ability to regulate religious land use was one reason the city determined to enter into a settlement agreement.”
“Further, given the settlement agreement, the city’s relatively new ordinance regulating meeting halls and churches will remain intact,” Crosby continued. “Had the city lost the law suit, there would be no way for neighbors to know what the possibilities are going forward. The agreement defines for both sides what can happen in the future.”
Woodridge Church was asked to comment on the settlement. At press time, this newspaper has not received the church’s comments.
Woodridge Church broke ground for its original building in Medina in 1996 and completed an addition in 1999. The church will have expanded three times once the two expansions mentioned in the lawsuit are completed. Under the settlement agreement, the church would not be able to expand any further at the County Road 24 location. Woodridge mentions five locations for its congregation on its website, including Medina, Delano, Hopkins and Minneapolis.