- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

LOS ANGELES Officials in the town of Cypress are trying to seize land purchased by a tax-exempt Christian group for a new church, arguing in court that they have a "compelling interest" for the property to be occupied by a taxable business.
City officials would rather see Costco Wholesale Corp., the warehouse-style retailer, build a store on the 18-acre lot at the strategic intersection of Walker Street and Kaetella Avenue, one of the streets that borders Disneyland.
Officials estimate the new store and associated development would generate 350 jobs and bring in as much as $900,000 a year in tax revenue.
"The property in question is in the heart of one of our key redevelopment areas and has been for 12 years. We do not view the church use as consistent with the goals and objectives for development of this key piece of property," Community Development Director David Belmer said.
Cottonwood Christian Center, a nondenominational church located in the nearby city of Los Alamitos, wants to build a large church to house its burgeoning congregation as many as 5,000 members, after just 50 to start with in 1983.
"We turn people away every single weekend. There is no room for them," said the Rev. Bayless Conley, founder and senior pastor at Cottonwood. The church bought the prime property in 1999 for almost $13 million.
"We lose people every week, and a lot of those folks are desperate. Coming to church is sort of a last resort, and we've been a bit heartbroken over that."
Cottonwood received a huge boost last week when a federal judge temporarily blocked the city's effort to seize the property, saying Cypress was abusing its power to force owners to sell their properties, a power typically exercised only for important public works, such as roads and utilities.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter said the city's effort to seize the property seems to run afoul of a series of Supreme Court decisions and the 2-year-old Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. They require that land-use decisions not unduly interfere with the religious liberty of any person or church.
"Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion," Judge Carter wrote in granting an injunction against the seizure. "Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If Cottonwood could not build a church, it could not exist."
Judge Carter brushed aside the city's assertion that the need to raise tax revenue gave it the "compelling interest" it needs, under law, to infringe on religious liberty.
Although it merely blocks the seizure temporarily, the ruling came as welcome news to religious groups.
"The implications of this case are, frankly, huge. If [the city] had prevailed in their claim that revenue increase was reason enough to take church property and resell it for retail use, then churches across the country would be sitting ducks," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based nonprofit group that helped Cottonwood argue its case.
Judge Carter's order blocks the seizure until a trial can be held, probably no earlier than March. The strongly worded opinion is a blow to the city's effort, as the judge is likely to preside at the trial.
The church hopes to build a 4,000-seat auditorium along with various support buildings, including a gymnasium, parking garage, child care center and missionary school. The complex would replace the aging and crammed 700-seat church it has called home for almost two decades.
The site is part of a larger 300-acre property that is home to the Los Alamitos Racetrack and the Cypress Golf Club. The city has tried unsuccessfully to develop office and retail sites on the property for more than a decade.
"We view it as a key property and the gateway to the project area," Mr. Belmer said. A new church "could have a very detrimental effect on the future redevelopment of the project area."
Cypress is a suburban community of about 47,000 residents in the heavily developed northern end of Orange County.
Cottonwood had applied for a permit to build on the land, as required by the city's zoning ordinance, but officials refused to consider it, saying the plans were incomplete. By the time the church and planning officials worked out that dispute, the city officials had begun negotiations with Costco.

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