Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon.
John W. Nielsen, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE DUNN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied February 11, 1987.
This is a declaratory judgment action brought by plaintiff Family Christian Fellowship (FCF), an Illinois religious corporation founded in 1975 whose primary ministries are worship and education, against defendant, County of Winnebago (county). FCF sought a judgment declaring that the county should have allowed its application for a special use permit to use a parcel of property it owned in Winnebago County for religious and educational purposes. Several neighborhood property owners were permitted to intervene as defendants. The trial court found that FCF could use the property for a school limited to grades K-8, but could not use the property for church or high school purposes.
On July 19, 1985, FCF purchased the former Marsh School property from the Rockford board of education for $450,000. The property consists of approximately 12 acres improved by an over 62,000-square-foot building containing 30 classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, and other rooms. The property is zoned R-1, residential. Churches and educational institutions are permitted, provided a special use permit is obtained from the county. Single-family residences surround the property on the north, east, and west side; the south side of the property abuts a large public park.
Prior to FCF's purchase of the property, the building had been used as a public school until the school was closed in the spring of 1978. In the fall of 1977, the school had an enrollment of approximately 500 seventh and eighth graders, and approximately 80 first through sixth graders. The junior high school students came from an area covering over 25 square miles. In November 1979, the school board leased 5,500 square feet of the building to the Rockford Public Library for a branch library. Another 10,000 feet of the building was leased to a private school. Special use permits were granted for each of these uses. In addition, the building was also made available for other minor uses. The school district attempted to sell the building in 1983, but received only one bid for $50,000, which it rejected.
On the same day FCF purchased the property, they applied for a special use permit to use the property for a church, preschool, grade school, and high school. FCF proposed to use the property for church services on Sundays, for school purposes during the week nine months of the year, and for some weekend seminars during the year. Two church services would be conducted, a morning service attended by approximately 550 people transported by approximately 125 cars and an evening service attended by some 200 people. The school's enrollment at the time of trial was 139 students, 112 in grades K-8 and 27 in grades 9-12, and had a faculty of 20. FCF hopes for an eventual enrollment of 280 students, including a high school enrollment of 80. The school operates during normal hours. Evening school activities would amount to 17-20 evenings annually. The weekend seminars would start on Friday evening, run Saturday, and conclude with the Sunday morning services. In 1985, there were 4 such seminars; in 1984, there were 10 to 12.
The zoning and planning committee recommended by a 5-3 vote that FCF be granted the special use permit. However, the zoning board of appeals denied the permit by a 4-2 vote on account of surrounding property value concerns, increased traffic, and potential drainage problems. The county board denied the permit by a vote of 13-12.
On appeal, FCF raises two principal arguments: (1) the Winnebago County zoning ordinance is a facially unconstitutional restriction of the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly; and (2) the denial of the special use permit was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable and was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Because we find that the latter argument is dispositive of this appeal, we need not address the constitutionality argument nor the remaining arguments raised by FCF. Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Board of Appeals (1962), 25 Ill.2d 65, 73, 182 N.E.2d 722.
• 1, 2 Judicial review of typical challenges directed at zoning restrictions imposed by legislative bodies is governed by well-established rules. There is a presumption of validity in favor of the action taken by the legislative body because zoning is mainly a legislative function. This presumption is not overcome unless the property owner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the ordinance as applied to him is arbitrary and unreasonable and bears no substantial relation to the public health, safety, and welfare. (Tomasek v. City of Des Plaines (1976), 64 Ill.2d 172, 179-80, 354 N.E.2d 899; National Pride Equipment, Inc. v. Village of Niles (1982), 109 Ill. App.3d 639, 644, 440 N.E.2d 1053.) However, the strong presumption of validity applicable in the usual case is significantly diminished when, as is the case here, the impact of the zoning decision in some way limits the free exercise of religion. The right of freedom of religion and other first amendment freedoms rise above mere property rights and far outweigh considerations of public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest. Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Board of Appeals (1962), 25 Ill.2d 65, 71-72, 182 N.E.2d 722; Lubavitch Chabad House of Illinois, Inc. v. City of Evanston (1982), 112 Ill. App.3d 223, 227, 445 N.E.2d 343, cert. denied (1983), 464 U.S. 992, 78 L.Ed.2d 681, 104 S.Ct. 485.
• 3 The relevant factors that the court may consider in determining the validity of a zoning decision are as follows: (1) the existing uses and zoning of nearby property; (2) the extent to which property values are diminished by the particular zoning restrictions; (3) the extent to which the destruction of property values of plaintiff promotes the health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public; (4) the relative gain to the public as compared to the hardship imposed upon the individual property owner; (5) the suitability of the subject property for the zoned purposes; and (6) the length of time the property has been vacant as zoned considered in the context of land development in the area in the vicinity of the subject property. (La Salle National Bank v. County of Cook (1957), 12 Ill.2d 40, 46-47, 145 N.E.2d 65; see also Duggan v. County of Cook (1975), 60 Ill.2d 107, 111-12, 324 N.E.2d 406.) In addition, the compatibility of the proposed use with an existing comprehensive plan is also a factor to be taken into account. City National Bank v. County of Kendall (1986), 140 Ill. App.3d 933, 936, 489 N.E.2d 486; Wilson v. County of McHenry (1981), 92 Ill. App.3d 997, 1001, 416 N.E.2d 426.
• 4 No one factor is controlling, and the findings of the trial court in reviewing a special use permit are not to be disturbed unless they are against the manifest weight of the evidence. La Salle National Bank v. County of Cook (1957), 12 Ill.2d 40, 47-48, 145 N.E.2d 65; Lubavitch Chabad House of Illinois, Inc. v. City of Evanston (1982), 112 Ill. App.3d 223, 226, 445 N.E.2d 343, cert. denied (1983), 464 U.S. 992, 78 L.Ed.2d 681, 104 S.Ct. 485.
Although the trial court declined to make specific findings of fact regarding FCF's lack of compliance with the applicable standards, our review of the evidence addressing the factors to be considered indicates that diminution in value of the surrounding residences, traffic problems, and drainage problems if on-site parking were added were the significant factors disputed by the parties. In determining that the trial court's partial denial of the proposed church/school use was against the manifest weight of the evidence, our analysis will encompass the pertinent standards outlined above with primary emphasis on the elements in dispute.
The property purchased by FCF is surrounded by single-family homes on the north, east, and west sides. A public park borders the southern edge of the property. The property is located in an area zoned for residential use.
The zoning restrictions in effect when FCF's special use application was denied by the county board substantially diminished the value of the subject property. Parker Moyer, a real estate appraiser, concluded that under an R-1, residential classification with the limited special uses already allowed, the property had little or no value at all. Moyer added, however, that if a special use permit were granted allowing the building to be fully ...