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Jesus Christ is Answer Ministries, Inc. v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 27, 2018

JESUS CHRIST IS THE ANSWER MINISTRIES, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge

         In the Fall of 2012, Plaintiff Reverend Lucy Ware (“Ware”) began improvements on a single-dwelling home to convert it to a house of worship for Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (“the Church”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”). Upon learning that the improvements did not comply with the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (“BCZR”), she filed a Petition for a Special Hearing and zoning variances with the Defendant Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (“the Board”) to approve a site plan for the Church. The Board denied the Petition, finding in part that the plan did not minimally comply to the extent possible with certain BCZR requirements. On appeal to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County and then ultimately to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the Board's findings were affirmed. While the appeal was pending, Ware filed a second Petition which the Board ultimately denied on September 13, 2017 on the basis of res judicata.

         One month later, Plaintiffs filed suit in this Court against the Board and Baltimore County, Maryland (collectively, “Defendants”) stemming from the denial of the second petition. Plaintiffs allege violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. (Counts I and II); the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Count IV); the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Count V); Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count VII); and seek judicial review of the Board's September 13, 2017 Opinion and Order (Count IX).[1] Currently pending before this Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, or in the alternative, for Summary Judgment.[2] (ECF No. 10.) The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the alternative, for Summary Judgment, construed as a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 10), is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' claims are DISMISSED.

         BACKGROUND

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss, this Court accepts as true the facts alleged in the plaintiff's complaint. See Aziz v. Alcolac, Inc., 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). In 1992, Reverend Ware (“Ware”), a native of Kenya, established Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, Inc. (the “Church”) in Baltimore, Maryland. (Compl., ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 12-13.) The Church is a nondenominational, multicultural Christian church with associated churches in Kenya and Seychelles. (Id. at ¶¶ 15, 18-19.) According to the Complaint, ten years later in 2002, the Church consisted of ten or less members. (Id. at ¶ 22.) This small group started meeting at Ware's home in Baltimore County, Maryland. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Over the next ten years, the Church grew beyond a mere ten members and met at different locations including an elementary school and hotel. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-33.) In 2008, Ware and other Church officials began fundraising and looking for a property for a house of worship. (Id. at ¶¶ 34-36.) In August of 2012, Ware identified 4512 Old Court Road, Baltimore, Maryland (the “Property”) as a potential location, and was told by a realtor that a church was a permitted use on the Property. (Id. at ¶¶ 37-38.) On August 31, 2012, Ware purchased the Property. (Id. at ¶ 39.)

         The Property is approximately 1.2 acres in size, and contains a 2, 900 square foot structure previously used as a home. (Id. at ¶ 42.) Without checking any applicable zoning regulations, Ware converted three rooms of the dwelling into a worship area, added two bathrooms, replaced the roof, and replaced a small deck. (Id. at ¶¶ 54-55.) In addition, Ware created a new, gravel parking area at the rear of the house and planted Cypress trees to line the new parking area. (Id. at ¶¶ 57-58.) In October of 2012, the Church held its first service, a cookout, and a party. (Id. at ¶¶ 60-61.) Local residents subsequently complained about the events to the County. (Id. at ¶ 62.) On November 8, 2012, the County informed Ware that the Property could not be used as a church until it complied with Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (“BCZR”). (Id. at ¶ 63.)

         The Property is zoned “Density Residential 3.5.” (Id. at ¶ 40.) The relevant BCZR that apply to the Property were summarized by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Ware v. People's Counsel for Baltimore County, 223 Md.App. 669, 117 A.3d 628 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2015):

Article 1B of the BCZR governs DR Zones in Baltimore County. A church or any other building used for religious worship is a use “permitted as of right” in a DR zone. § 1B01.1.A.3. Even a permitted use in a DR zone must comply with section 1B01.1.B, however, which establishes “[d]welling-type and other supplementary use restrictions based on existing subdivision and development characteristics.” One such restriction pertains to residential transition areas (“RTA”), which are buffer and screening areas. § 1B01.1.B.1. An RTA is a “one-hundred-foot area, including any public road or public right-of-way, extending from a D.R. zoned tract boundary into the site to be developed.” § 1B01.1.B.1.a(1).
As relevant here, an RTA is “generated” if the property “to be developed is zoned D.R. and lies adjacent to land zoned ... D.R.3.5 [or] D.R.5.5” containing a “single-family detached ... dwelling within 150 feet of the tract boundary.” § 1B01.1.B.1.b. A property owner may seek a variance from the RTA buffer requirements, but only if 1) the variance is recommended by certain County agencies or 2) there is a finding at a development review hearing, pursuant to Article 32, subtitle 4 of the County Code (“the Code”), that a modification to the RTA satisfies compatibility criteria and that a reduction in the RTA “will not adversely impact the residential community ... adjacent to the property to be developed.” § 1B01.1.B.1.c.
An RTA “use is any use” permitted as of right or by special exception in the zone or “[a]ny [business or industrial] parking area permitted under Section 409.8.B subject to the approval of a specific landscape plan for the buffer area which must meet the requirements for a Class A plan.” § 1B01.1.B.1.d.
Section 1B01.1.B.1.e establishes the “[c]onditions” in an RTA. Any single-family detached, semi-detached, or duplex dwelling is permissible within an RTA. A “parking lot” must be “set back from the tract boundary 75 feet and provide a fifty-foot RTA buffer.” § 1B01.1.B.1.e(2). The “buffer” must be an “upgraded, uncleared, landscaped buffer” and may not contain drainage areas, stormwater management ponds, or accessory structures, unless otherwise directed by the hearing officer upon the recommendation of the County. § 1B01.1.B.1.e(3).
There are “[e]xceptions to residential transition” that, if applicable, eliminate the “conditions” set forth above for a proposed site plan. § 1B01.1.B.1.g. Four of the exceptions pertain to churches. As relevant here, subsection (6) excepts a “new church or other building for religious worship, the site plan for which has been approved after a public hearing in accordance with Section 500.7” if there is a finding that “the proposed improvements are planned in such a way that compliance, to the extent possible with RTA use requirements, will be maintained and that said plan can otherwise be expected to be compatible with the character and general welfare of the surrounding residential premises.

Id. at 673-75, 117 A.3d 628 (emphasis in original). If a petitioner requests a hearing, the Baltimore County Code also provides that a governmental entity called the “People's Counsel” may advocate a position contrary to the religious land use. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 95.)

         In response to the November 8, 2012 notice from Baltimore County, on December 21, 2012, Ware filed a Petition for a Special Hearing and zoning variances (“Ware I”). (Id. at ¶ 99.) The Ware I Petition sought:

1) To allow a new church for religious worship on the subject property per section 1B01.1B1g(6) (BCZR)
2) To allow a residential transition area (RTA) buffer of 0 feet in lieu of the required 50 feet per section 1B01.1B1e(5) (BCZR)
3) To allow a residential transition area (RTA) setback of 0 feet in lieu of the required75 feet from a track boundary to a parking lot or structure per section 1B01.1B1e(5) (BCZR)

(ECF No. 10-2 at 639; ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 100-03, 113.) Notably, item one sought approval for a site plan of a new church under BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(6). The Ware I Petition also sought variances from three parking regulations. (ECF No. 10-2 at 639; ECF No. 1 at ¶ 103.)

         In January of 2013, the “People's Counsel” entered its appearance in the case. (Id. at ¶ 104.) On February 5, 2013, the County Director of the Department of Planning indicated that he did not oppose the petition, “provided a landscape and signage plan is submitted to the department for review and approval.” (Id. at ¶ 105.) On February 27, 2013, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with People's Counsel and nearby residents, “the Protestants, ”[3] present. (Id. at ¶¶ 104, 106-107.) During the proceeding, Plaintiffs claim that the Protestants made the following comments directed at Reverend Ware and the Church:

[D]ancing and hollering like they are [sic] back at their home back in Africa somewhere. . . . She can come over here from Africa . . . branch out from another church and put all of this in our neighborhood. . . . They were out there dancing like from Africa. We don't have that in our block.

(Id. at ¶ 108.)

         The ALJ recommended denying Ware's petition for a zoning variance, which the Board reviewed during a de novo hearing. (Id. at ¶¶ 109-111.) At that hearing, Ware and two other congregants testified in addition to an expert witness who prepared the site plan for the Property. (Id. at ¶¶ 112-13.) Several Protestants also testified and called an expert who testified that the site plan did not satisfy the RTA requirements and that the variances should not be granted because the hardship was self-imposed. (Id. at ¶¶ 114-17.) On October 9, 2013, the Board denied the petition, finding that: (1) RTA restrictions applied to the development of the Property; (2) the petition did not qualify for an exception as a new church under BCZR § 1B01.1.B.g(6) given that the site plan did not minimally comply with the RTA requirements and was not compatible with the neighborhood; and (3) given the Board's decision, the requests for parking variances were moot. (Ware I Opinion, ECF No. 10-2 at 75-88.) Specifically, the Board noted that “[t]he proposal is for no buffer and no setbacks, ” all other churches in the area, except one, were located in different density residential zones or located on corners, and all of the other churches had adequate land for parking lots which were paved and striped. (Id. at 84-85.)

         On appeal to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, the court verbally affirmed the Board's decision. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 125.) Ware then appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. (Id. at ¶ 126.) While Ware I was progressing through its hearings and appeals, Ware filed a second Petition for Special Hearing (“Ware II”) on October 31, 2013.[4](Id. at ¶ 134.) Specifically, the Ware II Petition sought:

1) To approve the site plan for a proposed building for a new church pursuant to BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(6).
2) To approve an addition to a church including parking areas and driveways pursuant to BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(4).
3) For such other and further relief as may be deemed necessary by the Administrative Law Judge for Baltimore County.
4) That the submitted site plan demonstrates compliance to the extent possible with section 1B01.1B1g(6) (BCZR).

(ECF No. 10-2 at 640.) The site plan for the new church in Ware II called for a 50-foot buffer and for setbacks measuring 62 feet to the property to the east, 72.7 feet to the property to the north, and 55 feet to the property to the west. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 138-39.) Accordingly, Plaintiffs assert that unlike Ware I, Ware II either meets or comes close to meeting the RTA setback and buffer requirements and does not request parking variances. (Id. at ¶¶ 132-135.)

         Notably, like the Ware I Petition, item one of the Ware II Petition sought approval for a site plan of a new church under BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(6); the difference according to Plaintiffs being that Ware II does not entirely eliminate the RTA buffer and setback, but rather proposes the above described measurements. However, unlike the Ware I Petition, item two of the Ware II Petition sought to add an addition to an existing church under BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(4). Although not emphasized by the parties in the current litigation, as described below the Board relied heavily on this fact in denying the Ware II Petition, which sought relief under § 1B01.1B1g(4).

         Plaintiffs claim that despite the differences between Ware I and Ware II, specifically the different proposed buffer and setback measurements, People's Counsel-responding to local residents' opposition to the Church-incorrectly told the ALJ that Ware II sought the same relief as Ware I. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 143-144.) On November 4, 2013, the ALJ dismissed the Petition without a hearing on the basis of res judicata. (Id. at ¶¶ 146-148.) Ware subsequently filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which the ALJ denied. (Id. at ¶ 150.) On January 9, 2014, Ware filed an appeal to the Board. (Id. at ¶ 151.) On February 4, 2014, People's Counsel filed a Motion to Dismiss the Ware II Petition on the basis of res judicata. (Id. at ¶ 152, 155.) The Board stayed the proceedings pending the Maryland Court of Special Appeal's decision. (Id. at ¶¶ 151, 153.)

         On July 2, 2015, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Baltimore County Circuit Court's decision in Ware I by written opinion. (Id. at ¶ 126; Ware v. People's Counsel for Baltimore County, 223 Md.App. 669, 117 A.3d 628 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2015).) The court found substantial evidence in the record to support the Board's findings that the RTA restrictions applied to the Property and that Plaintiffs did not meet either of the two conditions required for a new church to be exempt from the RTA requirements. Ware, 223 Md.App. at 638 (citing BCZR § 1B01.1.B.1.g(6)). First, the site plan did not comply to the extent possible with the RTA use requirements given that it proposed no buffer and no setback between the parking lot and the eastern boundary of the Property. Id. Second, the plan was not otherwise expected to be compatible with the character and general welfare of the surrounding residential premises. Id. at 686. In addition to the noise and traffic that the Church had allegedly caused, the court noted that other churches in the area are situated on larger lots and have sufficient space for parking. Id.

         On November 30, 2016, counsel for Protestants adopted the People's Counsel's Motion to Dismiss the Ware II Petition. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 152, 154.) Subsequently, on March 30, 2017, People's Counsel withdrew its Motion to Dismiss. (Id. at ¶ 155.) Because counsel for the Protestants had adopted the Motion, however, the Board held a hearing on the Motion on May 11, 2017. (Id. at ¶ 157.) On September 13, 2017, the Board granted the Motion to Dismiss. (Id. at ¶¶ 156-159.)

         In the Board's Opinion granting the Motion to Dismiss, the Board stated that during the hearing, “[Ware] argued that, in Ware I, it was seeking an exception pursuant to BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(6) but in Ware II, was seeking an exception pursuant to BCZR § 1B01.1B1g(4).” (Ware II Opinion, ECF No. 10-2 at 574.) As described above, § 1B01.1B1g(4) applies to existing churches while § 1B01.1B1g(6) applies to new churches. (Id.) The Board then summarized the “real thrust of [Ware's] argument” as “res judicata is inapplicable because the second case, Ware II, is different from Ware I in that different sections of the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations apply.” (Id.) The Board rejected this argument, explaining that:

The facts in Ware I and Ware II concern the same Petitioner, regarding the same property, and same proposed conversion of a single-family residence into a church. . . . The only difference is that Petitioner, once denied in Ware I as a new church, wants ...

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