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Muslim Center of Somerset County, Inc. v. Borough of Somerville Zoning Board of Adjustment

(Unpublished)

ZONING; CONDITIONAL USES; RLUIPA — Under the religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, land use regulations may not create a substantial burden on religious exercise unless the government shows that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest; therefore, if a land use board imposes a reasonable condition in connection with a variance sought by a house of worship, and the condition imposed is not a substantial burden on the religious exercise, the land use board’s action will be upheld.

2006 WL 1344323 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2006), Unpublished; May 16, 2006: A religious organization purchased a house in a residential neighborhood and applied to the municipal zoning board for numerous variances to allow conversion of the existing dwelling structure to a house of worship. Although the zoning ordinance permitted houses of worship as conditional uses, the application sought variances for a 57% decrease in the permitted lot area; a decrease in frontage; a 90% decrease in the size of the side yard; and, a reduction in the number of required parking spaces. The applicant admitted that it was looking for a more suitable location to hold its Friday services.

Municipal zoning boards have broad discretion when reviewing variance applications, but the decision to grant or deny a variance application may be set aside by a court if shown to be arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or not supported by the evidence in the record. To obtain a conditional use variance, an applicant must satisfy both positive and negative criteria. The zoning board should consider the public interest at stake; identify the detrimental impact flowing from a grant of the variance; reduce the detrimental impact by imposing reasonable conditions; and, weigh the positive and negative criteria to determine if the variance would cause a substantial detriment to the public good. Here, the Court found the applicant proved the proposed use was inherently beneficial. Any house of worship is an inherently beneficial use. A Court will give greater deference to inherently beneficial uses, such as houses of worship, than it will give to less favored conditional uses. Despite suggested ameliorative measures on the part of this applicant, the proposed use was adjudged to increase traffic, increase noise, and increase general activity in the neighborhood. Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), land use regulations may not create a substantial burden on religious exercise unless the government shows that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. Under a RLUIPA claim, the party seeking relief has the burden of proving that the regulation actually imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. Nonetheless, RLUIPA does not permit religious groups to establish houses of worship wherever they want. Mere inconveniences as a result of physical limitations of a proposed location do not amount to a substantial burden. In fact, the challenged land use regulation must exert significant pressure directly forcing the religious adherent to conform his or her behavior. According to the Court, because the applicant in this case admitted it was already looking for another location in which to hold services, requiring the services to be held in such other location did not appear to be a substantial burden on religion under RLUIPA. While a substantial burden does exist when the challenged regulation renders religious exercise impractical, in the present case the mosque was not being excluded from operation within the municipality. Rather, its use was limited in a residential neighborhood where it could have several detrimental effects. According to the Court, such a limitation is not a substantial burden. Consequently, the zoning board’s denial of the conditional use application with variances was affirmed.


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