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The Best Zoning Defense ...?

Battles between cities and churches over zoning are increasing. One congregation decided to sue preemptively.

Pastor Jim could hardly believe his ears. Faith Community Church hoped to start a congregation in the neighboring suburb of Williamstown, but the city's planning committee was stunningly candid during a courtesy review of the church's proposal.

The aldermen, in a public meeting, unambiguously said, "Our long-term development plans for the proposed site do not include a church. We want this prime piece of real estate to be developed commercially to generate tax revenue." The city was not going to let a church jeopardize that goal.

Williamstown's aldermen (names of the pastor, church, and city have been changed) had the local law on their side. The property Faith sought had been zoned for nonreligious assembly only—a theater or union hall could occupy the site, according to local ordinance, but a church could not build on the site without a special-use permit by the city—something the aldermen said they had no intention of granting.

So Faith Community Church took Williamstown at ...

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