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Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 15, 2018

HUNT VALLEY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, INC.
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY and BOARD OF APPEALS OF BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND

          MEMORANDUM

          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge

         Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, Inc. ("HVPC") filed this action against Baltimore County and Board of Appeals of Baltimore County, Maryland alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2OOOcc et seq. the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S;C. § 1983; Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights; and for judicial review of an administrative decision. The defendants filed a motion to stay this action pending the outcome of related proceedings in state courts. (ECF No. 10.) The issues in this case have been fully briefed, and no oral argument is necessary. See Local R. 105.6. For the reasons stated below, the motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         In 1992, HVPC purchased land at 13105 Beaver Dam Road in Cockeysville, Maryland on which it would construct a church. Since 1997, HVPC has rented space in a warehouse 0.2 miles away as a satellite campus for some of its activities, including middle and high school ministries and their office space. HVPC's services were at or over capacity on Easter in 2017, demonstrating the need for a larger facility to accommodate the congregation.

         When HVPC initially acquired the land at 13105 Beaver Dam Road, it was zoned to permit churches only by special exception. HVPC obtained a special exception with certain restrictions as to its use of the property, including limiting the size of the church it was permitted to build. Construction on this church was completed in 1998. In 2012, the land was rezoned to permit churches without special exception. In 2014, HVPC filed a request to amend its prior approved plan, but Baltimore County required the Church to file a new Development Plan instead. Local residents opposed HVPC's application. On March 15, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge issued a Combined Development Plan and Zoning Opinion. This decision was bifurcated by the Board of Appeals on appeal from the local residents opposing HVPC's expansion plans. The Development Plan was affirmed on August 25, 2016 by the Board of Appeals, and again by the Circuit Court of Baltimore County on July 18, 2017. The decision has been appealed by the opposing residents to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, where it is currently pending.

         The second half of the bifurcated case is an amendment to the initial Final Development Plan. On June 27, 2017, the Board of Appeals approved the amendments to the Final Development Plan with conditions to be determined at a later date. Those conditions were identified in an Opinion and Order issued on December 8, 2017, and include at least 30 days' advance notice of scheduled events held at the church; 48-hour notice of special events; certain storm water management requirements; and certain traffic control requirements including staggering services as much as 90 minutes apart.

         On December 13, 2017, HVPC filed this suit seeking judicial review of the December 8, 2017, opinion and order, arguing that the imposed conditions burden its free exercise rights and violate RLUIPA. HVPC seeks declaratory and injunctive relief from these conditions, compensatory damages, and attorney's fees in this suit.

         On January 5, 2018, those opposing HVPC's amendments filed a petition for review of the December 8, 2017 opinion and order in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. (Mot. Stay at 4, ECF No. 10-1.) HVPC filed a cross-petition for judicial review in that case on January 29, 2018. (Id.) On March 7, 2018, that case was stayed pending the outcome of this case. (Mar. 7 2018 Order in Cir. No. 03-C-18-000166, ECF No. 13-1.)

         On February 15, 2018, the defendants filed a motion to stay this case pending the outcomes of the appeal in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the petition and cross-petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. (ECF No. 10.) On March 1, 2018, HVPC filed its opposition. (ECF No. 11.) On March 12, 2018, HVPC notified the court that the petition for judicial review pending in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County had been stayed pending appeal of this case. (Letter, ECF No. 12.) On March 14, 2018, the defendants filed their reply in support of their motion and addressing the stay issued by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. On April 13, 2018, HVPC also submitted as supplemental authority an opinion issued by Judge Hollander on March 30, 2018, in another suit in this district involving the same defendants and a similar issue. (Letter, ECF No. 15.)

         ANALYSIS

         A court's authority to stay proceedings is incidental to its inherent power to "control the disposition of the causes on its docket with economy of time and effort for itself, for counsel, and for litigants." Landis v. JV. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936). The factors to consider when deciding a motion to stay are: "(1) the interests of judicial economy; (2) hardship and equity to the moving party if the action is not stayed; and (3) potential prejudice to the nonmoving party." Davis v. Biomet Orthopedics, LLC, No. JKB-12-3738, 2013 WL 682906, *1 (D. Md. Feb. 22, 2013).[2]

         Judge Hollander is currently presiding over another case with similar issues involving the same defendants but regarding a different church's property. Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, el al, No. ELH-17-804. In deciding whether to abstain from ruling in that case on Burford grounds, she ultimately retained the RLUIPA and Free Exercise claims in that case, and dismissed the count requesting judicial review of a Board opinion without prejudice. Hunt Valley Baptist Church, 2017 WL 4801542 at *20 (D.Md. Oct. 24, 2017); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). Judge Hollander also recently denied a motion to stay that case pending the outcome of a related state case. Memo., 4-5, ECF No. A\, Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, et al., ELH-17-804 (D. Md. Mar. 29, 2018).

         The defendants argue that the underlying Board decisions at issue in this case are not sufficiently final for review in this court due to the pending Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals cases. Relatedly, they argue that the factors identified in Davis v. Biomet Orthopedics weigh in their favor and that this case could become moot depending on the outcome of the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals cases. None of these arguments are persuasive.

         The Davis factors weigh in favor of denying the motion to stay. As in Hunt Valley Baptist Church, the Circuit Court has already stayed the proceedings related to this case pending the outcome in federal court. Judicial economy would be best served by allowing this case to proceed so the exclusively federal claims can be addressed. Similarly, denying the motion to stay ensures that HVPC would not be prejudiced by stayed proceedings in both federal and state courts. As Judge Hollander noted in her memorandum, RLUIPA and First Amendment Free Exercise claims will not be litigated in the state court cases. See Memo., Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County, Maryland, et al, ELH-17-804 (D. Md. Mar. 29, 2018) at 5; Hunt Valley, 2017 WL 4801542 at *19 ("Moreover, the Fourth Circuit has declined to abstain from cases involving a 'valid claim of religious prejudice...'") (quoting Pomponio, 21 F.3d at 1328). Accordingly, waiting for a ruling in the ...


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