Saturday, December 24, 2011

The First Amendment Right, Church and State, and Comprehensive Plans

Picked Up from Lake Minnetonka Patch

The city of Wayzata has reached a settlement in a lawsuit with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka (UUCM), ending a four-year legal dispute. The settlement was reached during a court-ordered conference.

The UUCM, represented by attorneys from the Gray, Plant, Mooty Law Firm, filed suit in 2010, charging that Wayzata’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan is discriminatory and denies the church its First Amendment rights. The lawsuit followed a failed application by UUCM in 2008 to rezone land designated for single-family residency. The UUCM has been located on “Piety Hill” in Wayzata since 1965 but desired a new location and facility. The city's Comprehensive Plan has designated the land for residential use for over 42 years.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city, represented by attorneys through the League of Minnesota Cities, agreed to amend its comprehensive plan and rezone two plots of land in the Holdridge neighborhood to a Planned Unit Development (PUD), allowing the church to build its previously proposed plan at that location. The land is currently owned by Robert Dachelet, a member of the church.

In order to reach settlement, the city will also pay UUCM $500,000 in damages, including attorneys’ fees. Finally, the city agreed to assist UUCM in acquiring two other small parcels of land adjacent to the Dachelet property and currently owned by Minnesota's Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

In return, UUCM dismissed its claims and agreed to work through the city’s normal process to apply for and complete its building project. The UUCM must build and occupy a new church on the property within six years, or the land will revert to its previous zoning.

Following the settlement conference, Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox released this statement:

“This was a difficult situation for us," Mayor Willcox wrote. "We believe the law supports our position and the city has right to control the planning and zoning within its borders through its long-established Comprehensive Planning process. However, it became clear that ending this expensive and detrimental proceeding was in the overall best interest of the citizens of Wayzata."

Mayor Willcox went on to say the city council's first priority was to "uphold the residential nature of our neighborhoods, a characteristic that has defined the city of Wayzata for decades and one which the majority of our residents wish to continue."

"Because this is such an important aspect of our community, we were willing to commit significant resources in its defense," Willcox said. “However, there is a time when the impending financial burden of continuing that fight forces us, as responsible stewards of the city, to shift our priorities from upholding that community value in order to act in the best interest of taxpayers."

As for costs to the city, Mayor Willcox said today's settlement announcement would end years of continuied expenses.

“Clearly, this settlement comes with great cost, not only financially but also to the comprehensive plan for our city," he said. "It is an expense that was undertaken only after much consideration. It became clear that UUCM and its attorneys were prepared to argue this matter to the fullest extent possible, a scenario resulting in potentially years of litigation and significant financial consequences for the City in legal fees alone. For that reason, we have agreed to settle the matter under these terms."

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