The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut and the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division are investigating whether the town of Brookfield’s zoning practices discriminate against land used for religious assembly.
Tara Carr, Brookfield’s first selectman; Jon Van Hise, chair of the town’s planning commission; and Gary Goetz, chair of the town’s zoning commission, were informed on July 19 that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation into whether the town’s zoning and land use practices violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
The law prohibits land use regulations that impose a “substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursuant to the least restrictive means,” treat religious assemblies or institutions as less than equal with secular ones, discriminate against religious entities on the basis of religion or denomination, or “totally excludes or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
At issue is a lawsuit brought by White Star Properties, LLC against Brookfield’s zoning commission, which alleges the town’s zoning policies violate the RLUIPA. The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Danbury on March 1 of this year.
White Star Properties owns commercial property at 271 Federal Road in Brookfield that it rented to K-Church, a religious institution, for general office purposes and events. But Brookfield’s zoning enforcement officer issued a cease and desist order prohibiting the property from being used as a church.
Brookfield’s zoning regulations do not allow “places of worship/parish houses and centers, provided a minimum lot area of 120,000 square feet” in the town’s C-1 zone.
White Star’s lawsuit notes that other businesses such as adult-oriented businesses, brewpubs, restaurants and sporting facilities are allowed in the C-1 zone with special permit approval.
According to the lawsuit, White Star submitted an application to amend the zoning code and add places of worship to the list of permitted uses in November 2022. The town’s planning commission reviewed the application the next month and recommended the zoning commission look favorably on the amendment.
At public hearings held on the proposed changes, White Star explained their amendment would provide flexibility to religious institutions and also provided documentation to the zoning commission about the RLUIPA. That included a Civil Rights Division document about the law, and DOJ documents related to a case against Meriden, which denied a permit to build a mosque and violated the RLIUPA.
The plaintiffs argue that, as a result, the zoning commission was “fully aware” of RLIUPA’s requirements.
On February 9, 2023, a zoning commission member moved to approve White Star’s application, but the motion failed to receive a favorable vote from a majority of commission members, which was interpreted as a denial of the application. As a result, White Star filed their lawsuit, arguing the town’s zoning regulations violate RLIUPA because they “treat religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions in the C-1 zone.”
The case is still pending. A judge ordered White Star to file a brief before the end of July and the defendants to file their brief by the end of August. An administrative appeal hearing is scheduled for December 8.
The DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation into the town will review “how Brookfield’s zoning regulations treat religious assembly use compared to secular assembly uses, and the Zoning Commission’s and Planning Commission’s response to efforts by the K-Church and White Star Properties to obtain permission to host religious assembly and other activities on a property currently located within the Town’s “C-1” district.”
To complete their investigation, the agencies have requested the town turn over a current copy of their zoning regulations, copies of all documents related to the process for establishing a religious assembly in Brookfield, copies of complete application or petition files for requests for site plan approval and other permits in the C-1 zone, White Star’s and the K-Church’s application files for a zoning change, copies of all records concerning White Star’s property in the C-1 zone, copies of all records related to an interest in establishing a place of worship located anywhere in Brookfield, and a list of all current houses of worship and religious facilities in Brookfield.