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Shenkel United Church of Christ v. North Coventry Township

November 13, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Surrick, J.


Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 10.) For the following reasons, the Motion will be granted.


Plaintiff Shenkel United Church of Christ (the "Church") is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation that owns and operates a small, rural church in North Coventry Township, Pottstown, Pennsylvania (the "Township"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 1.) The Church, which was organized in 1837, describes itself as "a faith-based Christian organization... [that] follows and practices the teachings of Jesus Christ as reflected in Scripture." (Id. ¶ 5-6.) Included in the practices and teachings are "mandates to care for the needy of our society, especially the poor and homeless, and to adhere to Matthew's directive, 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Id. ¶ 6 (quoting Matthew 22:39).) One way that the Church adheres to these mandates is by providing shelter to homeless people during the winter months. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) In fact, the Church asserts that "[p]roviding temporary, emergency shelter for people in need is a core religious ministry for [the Church]." (Id. ¶ 7.) For a number of years, the Church participated in "One Night at a Time," a county-run program that involved providing shelter to homeless guests for one month during the winter. (Id. ¶ 9.) In 2005, the county ceased running One Night at a Time and opened a shelter at a state hospital. (Id.) The shelter at the hospital has not met the overall need for shelter in the Township during the winter months. (See id.) It is overbooked, maintains a long waiting list, and is located farther from the Township than the Church's facilities. (Id.)

In 2007, a group called Ministries for Main Street sought to address the inadequacies of the state-run program by coordinating with local churches to provide shelter for homeless people for one month during the winter. (Id. ¶ 10.) Several churches in the Pottstown area participated in the program by transporting homeless guests to and from participating churches, allowing the guests to remain in the churches from the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., and providing night-long supervision by two adults. (Id.) The Church, whose facilities consist of a main church building, an attached office, an attached community hall, and a cemetery, decided to participate in the program in the 2007-2008 winter. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 11.) In anticipation of participating in the Ministries for Main Street program, the Church notified the Township's Manager that it would be offering shelter to homeless people during one month of the winter. (Id. ¶ 11.) In response, the Township's Manager informed the Church that use of the Church's facilities as a homeless shelter would violate the Township's zoning laws and building code and that the Church would need to apply for and obtain a variance in order to use its facilities as it desired. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.) By letter dated December 10, 2007, the Township's Zoning Officer, Deborah Russo,*fn1 informed the Church that:

After inspecting the [C]hurch facilities on Saturday, December 7, 2007, we found that the Church, which is an assembly occupancy under A-3 in the building code, is in compliance. However, an A-3 occupancy does not include sleeping arrangements. In order to accommodate sleeping in your facility, the occupancy class would have to be changed to residential. To allow the residential occupancy use, the building would have to be sprinkled. There is an exception, however, under the ACT 45 which exempts R-3 occupancies from the sprinkler requirement. To meet this exception, the use would have to be defined as a congregate living facility which houses sixteen (16) or fewer people at all times.

The Church, under the township zoning ordinance, is in the RR (Rural Residential) district. Because of the assembly use of the [C]hurch and the proposed temporary homeless shelter use, a variance is required for zoning relief to allow both uses in the same structure. The church can apply for a variance at the township.... (Doc. No. 10-4; see also Doc. No. 12 at 3.) In addition, the Township's Fire Marshal sent the Church a letter stating that the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Act imposed different fire safety requirements on buildings zoned for assembly purposes and buildings zoned for residential purposes and that assembly zoned buildings cannot contain sleeping facilities. (See Doc. No. 10-5; see also Doc. No. 12 at 4.) Echoing the Zoning Officer's letter, the Fire Marshal informed the Church that even if it were to change its zoning designation from assembly to residential, it could accommodate at most 16 individuals because the facilities did not have fire sprinklers. (See Doc. No. 10-5.)*fn2 Several days later, the Zoning Officer sent a follow-up letter to the Church stating that the Township would not issue a notice of violation pending the outcome of the variance application process. (See Am. Compl.¶ 14; id., Ex. A.) Because of the Township's position, the Church decided not to participate in the Ministries for Main Street program in the 2007-2008 winter. (Am. Compl. ¶ 12.)

The Church and the Township continued to negotiate through 2008. (See id. ¶ 15.) On October 2, 2008, the Township's Manager sent a letter to the Church stating that the Township maintained its position that the Church's use of its facilities as a temporary homeless shelter would require a variance. (Id.) Without conceding its position, the Church decided to file an application with the Zoning Hearing Board of North Coventry Township (the "ZHB") requesting a determination that it did not need a variance. (Am. Compl. ¶ 17.) Talks between the Church and the Township continued, and hearings on the Church's application were postponed on several occasions. (Id. ¶ 18.) On April 20, 2009, the Church filed the instant action. (See Compl.) On July 15, 2009, the Church withdrew its application and filed a First Amended Verified Complaint (the "Amended Complaint"). (See Am. Compl. ¶ 19.)

The Amended Complaint alleges that the Township's conduct violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq., the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act ("PRFPA"), 71 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 2401, et seq. The Township now seeks to have the Complaint dismissed on the grounds that the Church's claims are unripe and not presently justiciable.


Ripeness is a justiciability doctrine that helps to define the boundaries of federal jurisdiction. See Travelers Ins. Co. v. Obusek, 72 F.3d 1148, 1154 (3d Cir. 1995). The function of the ripeness doctrine is to prevent federal courts from "'entangling themselves in abstract disagreements'" that are created by "'premature adjudication.'" Phila. Fed'n of Teachers v. Ridge, 150 F.3d 319, 323 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Abbott Labs. v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 148 (1967)). Like other justiciability doctrines, the ripeness doctrine "derives ultimately from the requirement in Article III of the United States Constitution that federal courts are only empowered to decide cases and controversies. 'Even when the constitutional minimum has been met, however, prudential considerations may still counsel judicial restraint.'" Felmeister v. Office of Attorney Ethics, 856 F.2d 529, 535 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Action Alliance of Senior Citizens v. Heckler, 789 F.2d 931, 940 n.12 (D.C. Cir. 1986)). "Ripeness is a matter of degree whose threshold is notoriously hard to pinpoint." NE Hub Partners, L.P. v. CNG Transmission Corp., 239 F.3d 333, 341 (3d Cir. 2001). When determining whether a case is ripe, courts must "evaluate both the fitness of the issues for judicial decision and the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration." Abbott Labs., 387 U.S. at 149.

In Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), the Supreme Court devised a two-prong test for determining ripeness in the context of land-use disputes. The first prong requires that "the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue." Id. at 186. The second prong requires that the plaintiff must have exhausted the state's procedures for obtaining just compensation for a taking. Id. at 194-95. Williamson involved a challenge to a regulatory taking. Where a land use dispute arises from constitutional claims that do not require just compensation, the second prong of Williamson does not apply. See Murphy v. New Milford Zoning Comm'n, 402 F.3d 342, 349 (2d Cir. 2005); see also County Concrete Corp. v. Township of Roxbury, 442 F.3d 159, 164 (3d Cir. 2006) (applying only the first prong of Williamson's ripeness test to as-applied substantive due process and equal protection claims); Taylor Inv., Ltd. v. Upper Darby Township, 983 F.2d 1285, 1291 (3d Cir. 1993) (same). Thus, in as-applied First Amendment and RLUIPA claims arising from land use disputes, Williamson's prong-one ripeness standard governs. See Murphy, 402 F.3d at 350 (determining that "[a] First Amendment claim emanating from a land use dispute may be subject to the Williamson... prong-one ripeness test" and concluding that it is not "necessary to distinguish... RLUIPA claim[s] from the First Amendment claim[s] when it comes to [a] ripeness inquiry" in this context).

Analysis under the first prong of Williamson ensures that a claim is ripe because "[o]nly once a 'decision maker has arrived at a definitive position on the issue' has a property owner been inflicted with 'an actual, concrete injury.'" County Concrete, 442 F.3d at 159 (quoting Williamson, 473 U.S. at 192). The Third Circuit has observed that federal courts should not "become super land-use boards of appeals" because "[l]and-use decisions concern a variety of interests and persons" and "local authorities are in a better position than the courts to assess the burdens and benefits of those varying interests." Sameric Corp. of Del. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 598 (3d Cir. 1998). These considerations must be balanced with the fact that First Amendment free speech claims-particularly facial challenges-are subject to a relaxed ripeness standard. Peachlum v. City of York, 333 F.3d 429, 435 (3d Cir. 2003). Therefore, in the context of First Amendment claims, courts must cautiously avoid mechanical application of the Williamson prong-one ripeness test. Murphy, 402 F.3d at 348, 350-51. For instance, "[a] property owner will be excused from obtaining a final decision if pursuing an appeal to a zoning board of ...

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