Rather than go through expensive litigation, the Garden City Commission on Tuesday agreed to settle a zoning dispute with local church Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ.
In November, Mt. Zion, 606 N. Main St., filed a federal lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Wichita alleging the city of Garden City’s enforcement of zoning rules that prohibit churches within the central business district violated the First Amendment.
The previous month, the city commission denied a waiver for the church that would have allowed it to continue offering worship services in its building.
The church had been operating at the location for 10 years. But churches are not an allowed use in the C-3 central business district under regulations that have been in place for more than 40 years. The city’s code enforcement system, which is complaint-based, did not investigate the church’s zoning violation until a complaint about it was received earlier in 2014.
The court granted an injunction in November that allowed the church to continue offering worship services while the lawsuit proceeded.
City Attorney Randy Grisell said the city’s insurance counsel negotiated the settlement with the attorneys for the church.
Under the settlement’s terms, the city and its insurance carrier agreed to pay Mt. Zion and its attorneys $40,000 for damages and some attorneys’ fees. Mt. Zion is allowed to use the location as a church and all subsequent owners of the property also could use it as a church. Mt. Zion cannot object to any other permitted uses to begin operating in the C-3 district within 200 feet of the church; for example, the church could not object if a bar were to open nearby. The agreement does not include any admission of liability by the city.
In explaining the reasoning behind the settlement recommendation, Grisell said the claim against the city involves interpretation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that indicates a municipality cannot discriminate against a church if other uses of similar nature are allowed in a particular zoning district.
It could be argued that the city’s C-3 zoning district allows assembly uses, such as assemblies at the State Theatre, Grisell said, and a church may or may not be an assembly that is also allowed. While Grisell knows of no other assembly uses downtown, they are allowed.
“There aren’t any 10th Circuit Court cases that are right on point with our particular, similar facts, which leads us to the quandary of do we want to litigate this matter or do we want to try to work out something that’s reasonable with Mt. Zion?” Grisell said.
In Grisell’s opinion, the expense to public funds to continue to litigate the matter just wasn’t worth the risk.
To illustrate the risk involved, Grisell said similar cases litigated have involved attorney fees in excess of $300,000. The insurance company told the city if Mt. Zion were granted an injunction and allowed to use the premises, the insurance carrier would not cover the attorney fees awarded to the plaintiff.
“I can’t see risking funds in excess of $300,000 is worth litigating the matter at this point. I don’t believe you do, either,” Grisell told the commission.
Commissioners authorized the mayor to sign the settlement agreement.
Church pastor Roger Bradshaw was out of town on Tuesday and unavailable for comment. However, his daughter, April Bradshaw, said she was pleased with the settlement.
“I think it shows that communities and powers that be can work together to come to a peaceful resolution,” she said.
When asked if the situation was stressful for the church, April Bradshaw said it was more “shocking” to her because the church had been in the same location for a number of years.
“Most of my life my dad’s been a pastor. To all of a sudden be told you can’t worship here was jolting. But you know, that’s life. Life teaches you things and you get to learn. And we all learned — the church, the community, the city commissioners learned. We all want to accomplish the same goals and see Garden City be successful.”