A federal ruling that seemed to be good news for Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship has ended up complicating the Wine Country church’s push to expand its sanctuary, a project that has been opposed for years by area growers and wineries who believe churches are an “incompatible use” in the region.
“It is so wrong. It is analytically in error,” said Robert Tyler, managing partner of Murrieta-based Tyler & Bursch, LLP.
The Rancho California Road church, the only house of worship in the region, sued Riverside County in March of 2016 for religious discrimination on grounds the zoning that was adopted as part of the Wine Country Community Plan violated a church’s rights to build on its property.
A federal judge late last year issued a ruling on that case, saying the county cannot treat a church differently than other “like uses” in Wine Country. The judge, however, stopped short of saying that the county’s zoning rules are discriminatory, which has put the church in the position of trying to get the county to clarify its position so it can start building.
“If you’re going to interpret it so that churches are allowed by zoning then we’re good,” Tyler said during a recent phone interview. “The county wrote back and didn’t answer the question. They won’t answer the question.”
Tyler said the church plans to appeal the judge’s ruling — which he said involved a fair bit of “mental gymnastics” — but it could take more than a year-and-a-half to get an answer.
“Our brief is due in May,” he said.
According to the Department of Justice, zoning codes and landmarking laws may illegally exclude religious assemblies in places where they permit theaters, meeting halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes.
An attorney for Protect Wine Country — a group that includes area winery owners, Wine Country tour bus operators and growers — has said the zoning in Wine Country only allows special occasion facilities in conjunction with wineries, which undercuts the idea that the county is imposing some sort of double-standard.
Tyler’s legal team disputes that argument, stating that the county’s rules flatly prohibit churches in violation of federal law.
When the county adopted the community plan for the region in 2014 it carved out a “doughnut hole” exemption for the church’s 28-acre property. That exemption was challenged in court by Protect Wine Country, which has pressed the county to enforce rules in Wine Country that require property owners to use a significant percentage of their land for agricultural purposes (citrus groves or vineyards, etc.)
The successful challenge, which took the form of a settlement in 2015, left Calvary Chapel as a “non-conforming use” within the 17,900-acre Wine Country region and it required the church to defend the legality of the doughnut hole, which the church has protested.
As the cases involving the settlement were being considered, the church tried to move forward with its long-on-the-books plans to build a sanctuary that would accommodate more than 900 people, nearly double the capacity of the existing sanctuary.
But the thicket of lawsuits and appeals made it difficult, and increasingly costly, for the church to get their project in front of the county Planning Commission.
Tyler said the church still plans to pursue the expansion project in the future but it is waiting to move forward until the various cases are settled.
“They’re behind this battle, it’s a righteous battle,” he said.