Sunday, December 1, 2013

Who Will Win In The Fight For Waterfront Property?


 The Jaros Family of Oneida County in Wisconsin have been planning to open up Eagle Cove Camp, a Christian affiliated Bible study camp, for over ten years. However, the previous zoning standards put forth by the town prohibit them from building the camp in the location they want.  After many attempts at negotiating some type of construction, the Jaros family has brought the case to federal court claiming that this zoning law prohibits their free exercise.

            In 1998, the area surrounding Squash Lake was legally zoned for low density families and single parent families. The reason for this was to limit the residents on these water front properties and maintain the quaint and rustic feel that the town was known for. Since 2001, the County Ordinance has allowed for 60% of the county’s property and 40% of the towns property for religious schools and churches. In addition, the Ordinance allows 72% of the County land for recreational camp use, 36% of that for bible study camps. However, in the zoned properties surrounding Squash Lake, no recreational camps were permitted.

            But the Jaros family believed that Eagle Cove Camp was an exception, their religion required the camp to be built on 34 acres of land specifically on Squash Lake property. The land that they desired was partially zoned for the single parent families and partially zoned for residential farming, and they filed to petition against the zoning laws in 2005. The county denied their request, stating that the presence of a camp on Squash Lake would interfere with the quaint and rustic feel that the area was known and loved for.

            In 2010, Eagle Cove sued the County, town and US District Court for the Western district of Wisconsin claiming that denying them an exemption from the previously established permit application was a serious burden on their free exercise.

“In the Seventh Circuit, a substantial burden “is one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise . . . effectively impracticable.  The burden must be truly substantial, to hold otherwise would permit religious organizations to supplant even facially-neutral zoning restrictions under the auspices of religious freedom.”  Petra Presbyterian Church v. Vill. of Northbrook, 489 F.3d 846, 851 (7thCir. 2007).”

According to the Seventh Circuit, keeping the previous zoning law was not a substantial burden to Eagle Cove because they could very well build the camp grounds on nearby property. They were allowed to practice religious assembly in public but not on property that had to be rezoned against previous conditions set forth by the town.

Eagle Cove has continued to appeal their case and bring it to higher courts claiming that the zoning law violates the RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and ArthurJaros claims that he will not hesitate to bring the case to the US Supreme Court if necessary. The RLUIPA protects religious groups from being excluded or favored by their governments in terms of land use and is neutral in terms of who can build where in terms of civil laws already in place. In response to Eagle Cove, the RLUIPA has not served as a ‘get out of jail free card’ for religious groups to override the law because they have first amendment rights. It is a valid method of analyzing these entangled situations and and in turn, notes the value that the Squash Lake property zoning has for the reputation and tradition of the town.

Even though this case has been going on for three years, I do not think Eagle Cove will get the exemption from the zoning laws and be able to build exactly where they wanted to. I understand that the waterfront property is important to their religious message but there are many other properties nearby that can work just as well, especially since the Jaros family has provided little evidence to the religious meaning of the property. Additionally, the RLUIPA protects religious freedom and the zoning laws set in place but does not guarantee that all religious groups get exemption from these laws that had been set years ago.

I empathize with the Jaros Family and Eagle Cove Camp because they can not get the location that they originally wanted but there goal shouldn’t be shattered there! I don’t think the various courts in Wisconsin are targeting their religion, they just see more value in the traditional landscape around Squash Lake and the RLUIPA makes that totally okay.

Do you think this case will ultimately make it to the Supreme Court? 


Liz L. said...

I think that Eagle Cove does not deserve an exemption. Religious rights are not being violated. I agree with the argument that there is no burden on the free practice of their religion. Land use is under government overview, and religion does not trump zoning. Zoning does not violate the First Amendment, because zoning does not limit religious freedoms.

Dan W said...

I fail to see the burden on the free exercise in this case. Religious groups, just like all other groups, must follow zoning laws. There is a clear secular purpose in the zoning laws and though I am generally not fond of determining the legitimacy of religiously based claims, this seems like a failed attempt to invoke the First Amendment. I am no expert but as far as I know there is no tenant in the Christian tradition requiring that camps must be placed by rivers.

Maggie S. said...

I agree with Liz that it seems like the zoning laws would trump everything else. Property is zone in specific ways for a reason, and it does not seem like the local municipality is saying they can't set up the camp anywhere or under any circumstances, just that the site isn't zoned for that use but they seem welcome to set it up elsewhere. I don't see it as disfavoring religion in general or in particular--any group wanting to set up a camp there would be rejected.

Mike Spear said...

After reading, I did not feel that there was no burden as a result of an individuals religious beliefs. There is obviously a secular purpose here to maintain the landscape through zoning laws. These laws are not established to limit religious freedom therefore Eagle Cove should not be given an exemption.

SC said...

I think this is a case where people are hoping to use their religion as a magic wand to get their way. Zoning requirements do not hamper anyone's free exercise. The zoning requirements apply to everyone, and therefore is not being "excluded" from anything. I don't think that people should be able to accuse a law as unconstitutional just because it doesn't allow them to practice their religion in the exact way in which they want to. If this does make it to the Supreme Court, I think it will be open-and-shut.