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City of Chicago Heights v. Living Word Outreach Full Gospel Church and Ministries

March 22, 2001

THE CITY OF CHICAGO HEIGHTS, APPELLEE,
v.
LIVING WORD OUTREACH FULL GOSPEL CHURCH AND MINISTRIES, INC., APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW

Docket Nos. 87101-Agenda 37-September 1999.

At issue in this zoning case is whether the City of Chicago Height's denial of a special use permit to Living Word Outreach Full Gospel Church and Ministries, Inc. (Living Word), was unlawful.

BACKGROUND

The property at issue in this appeal is located at 400 West Lincoln Highway and consists of a one-story, 4,000-square-foot brick building and an adjoining parking lot. The property is on the south side of Lincoln Highway, a four-lane road that runs east and west through the City. The building on the property was constructed in 1954 for use as a Masonic temple. To the west of the property, and across the street to the north, are commercial buildings, such as a carry-out Italian restaurant and a veterinary office. To the east are buildings that house a mix of residential and commercial uses. Immediately behind the property, to the south, are single-family homes.

The property is located in a zoning district defined under the City's zoning ordinance as B-2, or "limited service business district." Churches are listed in the City's zoning ordinance as a special use within B-2 districts. Churches may locate in a B-2 district by obtaining a special use permit from the City.

Under the City's zoning ordinance, the authority to grant or deny an application for a special use permit is reserved to the city council. Prior to the council taking action on an application for a special use permit, the City's zoning board of appeals and the City's plan commission must review the application and make a recommendation. These recommendations are forwarded to the city council, which then decides whether to approve or deny the application.

The City's zoning ordinance states that the zoning board of appeals may recommend to the city council that a special use be allowed only if the following six criteria are satisfied:

"(a) That the establishment, maintenance or operation of the special use will not be unreasonably detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare;

(b) That the special use will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the immediate vicinity for the purposes already permitted nor substantially diminish and impair property values within the neighborhood;

(c) That the establishment of the special use will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district;

(d) That adequate utilities, access roads, drainage and/or other necessary facilities have been or are being provided;

(e) That adequate measures have been or will be taken to provide ingress and egress so designed as to minimize traffic congestion in public streets;

(f) That the special use shall in all other respects conform to the applicable regulations of the district in which it is located, except as such regulations may in each instance be modified by the city council pursuant to the recommendations of the zoning board of appeals." Chicago Heights Municipal Code, app. A, Zoning, §12-6.6 (1973).

In January 1996, after taking possession of the property at 400 West Lincoln Highway, Living Word submitted an application to the City for a special use permit. A public hearing was held before the City's zoning board of appeals on March 13, 1996. After the hearing, the board forwarded Living Word's application to the City's plan commission. On March 27, 1996, the plan commission recommended that Living Word's application for a special use permit be denied. On April 3, 1996, the zoning board of appeals also recommended that the application be denied. Finally, on April 15, 1996, the city council agreed with the recommendations of the plan commission and the zoning board of appeals and denied Living Word's application for a special use permit.

The city council ultimately denied Living Word's application based upon a comprehensive development plan adopted by the City in December 1995. This plan targeted West Lincoln Highway, the area in which the church is located, for development as a commercial corridor. The concern of the council was that granting a special use permit for a noncommercial use, such as a church, would be at odds with the goals of the comprehensive plan.

Although the city council denied Living Word's application for a special use permit, the church continued to hold services in the building at 400 West Lincoln Highway. Eventually, the City filed suit in the circuit court of Cook County, seeking to permanently enjoin the church from continuing its services. Living Word responded with 14 affirmative defenses which were later refiled in a 14-count counterclaim. Three of the counts in the counterclaim are relevant here. Count VI of the counterclaim alleged that the city council's denial of Living Word's application for a special use permit violated Living Word's right to the free exercise of religion under the first and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution. Count XIII alleged that Living Word was merely continuing the Masons' permitted nonconforming use of the property. Count XIV alleged that the city council's denial of Living Word's application for a special use permit was "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable in light of [sic] fact that use of the property by [Living Word] meets standards (a) through (f) of section 12-6.6 of the zoning code of the City."

A bench trial was held in December 1997. During this trial, the court heard testimony from several witnesses, including Maria Arbeen, a real estate appraiser. Arbeen testified that, in her opinion, Living Word had satisfied all the criteria for obtaining a special use permit listed in the City's zoning ordinance.

The court also heard testimony from Joseph Christofanelli, the city planner for the City of Chicago Heights. Christofanelli stated that the City was suffering economic problems and was approximately $57 million in debt. Because of this, Christofanelli explained, the City needed to concentrate on developing commercial areas that would generate real estate and sales taxes. The West Lincoln Highway corridor was of particular importance to the City because that corridor was the City's best commercial, tax-revenue-generating area. Christofanelli stated that permitting any noncommercial use within the West Lincoln Highway corridor would be detrimental to surrounding commercial properties because these properties would miss out on the "spill-over effect" whereby customers patronize more than one business in an area. Christofanelli stated that Living Word's application for a special use permit was denied because "the church was something we had not envisioned for that particular corridor, and here, again, that's based upon the Comprehensive Plan."

The court heard testimony similar to Christofanelli's from Steven Albert, a real estate appraiser. Albert stated that any noncommercial use in the West Lincoln Highway corridor would be incompatible with, and detrimental to, the goals of the City's comprehensive plan.

In addition to the foregoing testimony, the circuit judge also reviewed several exhibits, including the City's zoning ordinance, the City's comprehensive plan, the City's official zoning map, Living Word's special use application, minutes from city council meetings, minutes from meetings of the City's zoning board of appeals, ...


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