More Church Zoning Questions

by Various

At Useful Community Development we are receiving many questions about zoning for churches or church-related land uses. We already have answered several questions on individual pages, but this topic is threatening to overwhelm other important content.

We decided to combine our newest church zoning questions onto a single page, and then to keep adding new ones to this same page until this page too becomes too lengthy.

This is really a sign that churches are seeking atypical places to locate and that there is much confusion about the application of the Religious Land Uses and Institutional Persons Act to zoning. We are glad to help, so please scan to see if your question has been asked and answered.

Submitted by:
Pastor: Sam John

We saw a 2 acre plot and 22,000 sq. ft. building in the Philadelphia City area. The zoning is Industrial/Industrial Mixed Use. Can we use this property and building as a community church without changing the zoning?

Editors' Reply That depends entirely on the local zoning ordinance. If churches are listed as a "permitted use" in the zoning ordinance where the attributes of the Industrial/Industrial Mixed Use zoning district are described, your answer is yes.

If churches are shown in a different list under Industrial/Industrial Mixed Use, such as a list of uses requiring a special use permit, special exception, or conditional use permit, you may only locate your church in that zoning district if you go through an additional process.

This process could be either administrative, meaning you have to submit an application and some employee determines whether or not you can obtain the required permit, or it might be legislative, meaning that a hearing before the planning commission, city council, or both would be required to determine if you can have the special use, conditional use, or special exception. In other words, the process might be similar to a rezoning.

If you cannot locate a full copy of the zoning ordinance online, ask someone at City Hall to check this for you. The answer should be straightforward enough.

For the rest of you, the answer to many questions about church zoning is to refer to the actual zoning ordinance. They are not as hard to read as you might imagine, in most cases. You do not need an attorney to answer questions such as this; if you need help, ask someone in the planning office. They will be glad to translate for you!


Question: Will RLUIPA allow me to open a residential ministerial retreat in a residence?

Submitted by: Corinn
Eden, Utah

I am interested in opening a residential ministry that offers retreats in order to strengthen families and marriages, and also as a crisis and illness recovery center. Many of the prospective guests would also fall under the Fair Housing Act and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

My zoning office will allow churches, homes for the disabled, and senior living homes as well as recovery residences but my proposed use is more life coaching and ministry centered rather than medically or clinically centered.

Do you know of specific laws that would protect such a use either just as a ministry or drawing on the ADA and Fair Housing?

Editors Reply: In brief, the Religious Land Uses and Institutional Persons Act prohibits discrimination against one religion or denomination at the expense of another, prohibits outlawing of all new religious land uses everywhere in a jurisdiction, and prohibits treating religious uses more stringently than non-religious places of assembly with similar physical characteristics.

RLUIPA does not seem very relevant to your situation. You would be well advised to consult an attorney about the detailed facts of your case. An attorney can research legal precedents your particular locale.

Having said that, here are a few ways to think about this.

When you venture outside of the definition of a group home based on a shared disability (such as an addiction), which is protected by the ADA, you are moving into territory that is less clear. Since group homes are sometimes controversial anyway, regardless of the great work they may do, our best advice would be to try to go a legally safer route that provides more certainty.

A more conventional approach would be to look at where in the local zoning ordinance there is a provision for a number of people who are not related to one another to live in the same building. In most places, that will be multi-family zoning.

You might think it is impractical to look for a property zoned multi-family, but in many places, that would be possible if you make a careful search. Also you might find property that would be suitable for rezoning to multi-family.

At least in most jurisdictions, there would not be any prohibition on a common space within the multi-family dwelling or complex. Common examples would be a shared party room or shared laundry facility. You just would have a lounge where you could conduct your programming.

These days if someone does not have a counseling office, many sessions in a field such as life coaching occur in a local coffee shop or other so-called third space. You also might be able to run the life coaching or spiritual growth programs as a home-based business at your own residence, again depending on zoning law where you reside. Finally, of course you might conduct the actual life coaching and ministry activities in a local church, where they would almost certainly be legal.

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