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Rector Church Wardens v. City of Philadelphia Historical Commission

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 11, 2019

Rector Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Trinity Church in Oxford Township Philadelphia County, Appellant
City of Philadelphia Historical Commission and City of Philadelphia

          Argued: June 3, 2019



          Robert Simpson, Judge.

         Rector Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Trinity Church (Church) (collectively, Owners) appeal from an order of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas (trial court)[1] that affirmed the City of Philadelphia Historical Commission's (Commission) designation of their Parish House as a historic place. Owners argue the trial court erred in deferring to the Commission's construction of its regulations because the Commission disregarded a crucial prerequisite for designation, that the place be significant. Owners also assert the trial court should have analyzed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§2000cc-2000cc-5, because the designation burdens the Church's religious exercise by creating obstacles to profiting from the property. Upon review, we affirm the trial court's order.

         I. Background

         Parish House, located at 6901 Rising Sun Avenue, is on the western side of the same parcel as the Church (previously designated as historic)[2] in Philadelphia. Parish House, also referred to as School House, was constructed in two phases in 1928 and 1963. Its construction in 1928 followed the City's Sesquicentennial celebration featuring the Colonial Revival architecture style. The first phase featured an auditorium and gymnasium. The addition in the second phase added a larger classroom wing following the same Colonial Revival style.

         Features of the Colonial Revival style reflected in Parish House include: a Doric portico entrance and porch; a tabernacle window; double doors; and a 1928 date stone and "bulls-eye" window above the entrance. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 63a, 219a-20a, 258a. The expansion added a gable roof and an octagonal cupola also reflective of the Colonial Revival style. R.R. at 217a-19a, 222a.

         Owners leased the space at Parish House for various secular uses including classes, community meetings and activities. Notably, Parish House has not been used for religious services. R.R. at 227a-29a. The gym in Parish House was leased to the Philadelphia Police Athletic League from 1969-2015, and other portions were leased to a child care center from 1978-2015. Owners stopped leasing Parish House in 2015.

         In April 2017, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia (the Alliance) nominated Parish House for designation on the Philadelphia register of historic places (Register). The nomination proposed that Parish House met three of the 10 criteria in the Preservation Ordinance, Phila. Code, §14-1004(1), specifically, (c), (d) and (j). Criterion (c) requires the building to reflect an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style, here Colonial Revival popular in the 1920s. Criterion (d) requires a building to embody distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style. Criterion (j) allows designation of places that exemplify cultural or social heritage of the community.

         In September 2017, the Committee on Historic Designation, (which reports to the Commission), met to consider the nomination. The five-person Designation Committee included two architectural historians, an archaeologist and a registered architect.

         During the Designation Committee meeting, the Alliance, local politicians and members of the community presented their views on the architectural and historic importance of Parish House itself and as an integral part of the community. Owners opposed the designation as they were in negotiations to enter a binding lease or sale with Royal Farms to build a gas station/convenience store. The financial hardship alleged is that Parish House could not be altered or demolished once on the Registry.

         The Designation Committee discussed the comments and considered the arguments. It then voted to recommend to the Commission that Parish House met the criteria for designation on the Register.

         In November 2017, the Commission held a public meeting where it considered the nomination. Community members and leaders supported the designation. Over 3, 000 community members signed a petition supporting the designation. R.R. at 55a-62a. The Commission also heard Owners' objections. Owners emphasized the Church's financial difficulties and the necessity of obtaining revenue from Parish House. They provided a preliminary economic analysis of their finances, including the annual cost of maintaining Parish House of $30, 000-$36, 000. Owners planned to allow a commercial tenant to demolish Parish House and repurpose the property as a convenience store. Owners maintained a lease or sale of Parish House was necessary for the Church's survival as it was its only secular asset.

         After emphasizing its role in acting on the nomination, and not in deciding a financial hardship application, the Commission concluded Parish House met the three designation criteria as the Designation Committee recommended.[3] On November 29, 2017, the Commission issued its official notice of designation. R.R. at 5a-6a. Owners appealed the Commission's decision to the trial court.

         Based on the record before the Commission, the trial court upheld the designation. Owners then appealed the trial court's order to this Court.

         The trial court directed Owners to file a Rule 1925(b) Statement of errors complained of on appeal. After receiving the Statement, it then filed an opinion supporting its order. See Tr. Ct., Slip Op., 10/2/18. It deferred to the Commission's construction of the Preservation Ordinance and its application of the designation criteria to Parish House. The trial court cited the evidence presented at the Commission's meeting. It also concluded that RLUIPA did not apply because there was no indication on the record that Parish House was used for any religious purpose or that the designation impaired any religious exercise.

         After briefing[4] and argument the matter is ready for disposition.

         II. Discussion

         On appeal, [5] Owners argue the trial court erred in applying an abuse of discretion standard to the Commission's decision. Primarily, they assert the trial court overlooked an overarching significance criterion in the Preservation Ordinance. They contend the designation criteria are ambiguous, requiring the Commission to consider the significance of Parish House. Owners also claim substantial evidence does not support the designation. In addition, they assign error in that the trial court concluded RLUIPA did not apply to preclude designation, an alleged burden on the Church's religious exercise.

         The City responds that Parish House meets designation criteria because it reflects the Colonial Revival style and has historically been a center for community activities. It counters that the Commission's meeting minutes and the records it considered constitute sufficient evidence in support of the Commission's decision.

         Chapter 14-1000 of the Philadelphia Code, pertaining to Historic Preservation, serves as the City's Preservation Ordinance. As a matter of policy, it recognizes the importance of preserving buildings of "historic, architectural, cultural, educational and aesthetic merit" and preserving buildings important to the education, culture, traditions and economic values of the city. Phila. Code, §14-1001 (Public Policy and Purposes). To that end, the Code empowers the Commission to render decisions on historic preservation, including designation of buildings for the Register. See Turchi v. Phila. Bd. of License & Inspection Review, 20 A.3d 586, 590 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (Turchi I).

         The Commission designated Parish House for the Register based on the criteria contained in the Preservation Ordinance. We consider the Commission's interpretation of the Preservation Ordinance. We also examine whether the record ...

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