Church wants to buy former St. Michael theater site

Cites potential litigation to resolve rezoning issue

The Riverside Church said it would pursue litigation regarding its desired purchase of the former Cinemagic theater building in St. Michael.

The church contends the city’s zoning law, which does not allow a church as a use in the business district, “violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Constitution, and must be changed to allow Riverside to use the property for the purpose it intends.”

The city, on the other hand, said it has every right to require the church to submit a rezoning application and a formal public hearing process similar to any other land use/zoning request.

At the city council meeting, city attorney Dave Lenhardt reported about a letter the city received from an attorney representing Riverside Church of Big Lake, related to its interest to purchase the former theater building for the purpose of operating a church.

In that letter, attorney G. Craig Howse said that making the church go through the rezoning process “will foreseeably attract competition from other buyers, driving the price up.”

Howse continued that, “This also would lead to the loss of the opportunity to purchase the property and damages Riverside. Thus, an immediate allowance of church use in the B-1 zone is requested to prevent foreseeable damages by an increased purchase price.”

Howse said Riverside intends to use the property by simulcasting its church services from its primary location in Monticello/Big Lake to the theater screen at the former Cinemagic site. He said the church made a multi-million offer to purchase the property that was rejected by the seller, because of the zoning ordinance.

“The city’s zoning law is discriminating because Riverside’s intended use of the property as a church in the B-1 zone is precluded, while the same or similar use as a theater is allowed,” Howse said. The five-page letter concluded that “any delay in taking the required action will cause Riverside damage which Riverside will seek to recoup through litigation.”

Attorney Lenhardt said that, to date, the church has not submitted a formal request or application for rezoning the building or amending the zoning code to allow a church to operate in a commercial zone. He said the city cannot ignore its zoning code and must follow state statutes and the city’s zoning code procedures, which require an application for a zoning code amendment, a public hearing, planning commission recommendation and city council approval.

Lenhardt concluded that the city has the right and obligation to its citizens to carry out the policies and procedures. He said that while the church has the right to request the city amend its zoning code, no such application has been filed. Once an application is submitted, the city has at least 60 days to act on the application.

Mayor Jerry Zachman and councilors Kevin Kasel, Joe Marx, Nadine Schoen and Chris Schumm authorized Lenhardt to respond to the letter stating the city’s right and obligation to require an application and formal public hearing process similar to any other land use/zoning request.

Riverside’s pastor, the Rev. Tom Lundeen, urged his congregation June 15 to pray for a resolution.

“The process we’ve been in is not unique to us,” he said. “Many other churches are experiencing what we are experiencing — growth and the need to find suitable locations for campuses.”