Nov. 1, 2013 – A federal law that protects an organization’s right to use land for religious purposes does not save a proposed lakeside Bible camp, which recently lost an appeal to circumvent land use laws that prohibit year-round recreational activities.
Squash Lake is located west of Rhinelander, near the Town of Woodboro in Oneida County. Woodboro had a land use plan that preserves the town’s rural roots. All but seven of the town’s 177 parcels were zoned for residential, single family use.
In 2001, though, Woodboro relinquished zoning authority to Oneida County under the Oneida County Zoning and Shoreland Protection Ordinance, which allows churches and schools to use campgrounds and other land in Woodboro for religious activities.
The Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center (Eagle Cove) acquired 34 acres of land on Squash Lake, and wanted to construct a Bible camp for operation all year long. Eagle Cove has a religious belief that the camp must operate year-round at this particular site.
However, this particular property is not zoned for recreational use. It is zoned for residential or farming uses. The purpose, under the county zoning plan, “is to provide an area of quiet seclusion for families.” This is the most restrictive zoning classification.
In 2005, Eagle Cove filed a petition for rezoning. The petition was denied, on the recommendation of Woodboro, because the county and Woodboro plans do not permit recreational camps to operate year-round on property that is zoned for residential use.
A few years later, Eagle Cove sought a conditional use permit to construct the Bible camp, which would not require the property to be rezoned. The proposal called for a 106,000 square-foot lodge and a camp that would accommodate 348 campers.
The county denied this conditional use permit as incompatible with zoning goals for properties around Squash Lake. Eagle Cove then filed an action in federal district court under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
RLUIPA prohibits land use regulation from completely excluding religious activity. The district court rejected Eagle Cove’s argument that Woodboro totally excluded Eagle Cove from running its Bible camp, as the camp could operate in other locations.
In Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center Inc. v. Town of Woodboro, No. 13-1274 (Oct. 30, 2013), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed that the land use regulations at issue did not violate RUILPA, affirming the district court.
Eagle Cove’s argument hinged on its claim that county land use regulations allowed year-round religious Bible camps, but the town’s land use plan excluded them.
“Woodboro chose to be subordinate to Oneida’s zoning ordinance, and thereby relinquished its jurisdiction over land use regulations to the county,” wrote Judge Michael Kanne. “For this reason, Eagle Cove’s total exclusion claim must fail.”
The three-judge panel noted that the county chose to uphold the residential land use planning goals of the town, but it was not required to follow those plans. It explained that the county still allows Eagle Cove to locate a year-round Bible camp somewhere else.
“There is ample evidence in the record to suggest that operating a year-round Bible camp would be possible in many parts of Oneida County,” Judge Kanne wrote.
The court also rejected Eagle Cove’s complaint that Oneida County must show a compelling interest for imposing land use restrictions on their religious-based plans.
“Eagle Cove must demonstrate that the zoning in Oneida County imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religious rights and that the County did not have a compelling reason in creating the burden,” Judge Kanne explained.
The Squash Lake zoning laws are neutral and meant to preserve the town’s rural and rustic character, the panel explained, and Eagle Cove cannot seek an exception to neutral zoning laws on the basis of religious beliefs.
“It is not the land use regulations that create a substantial burden, but rather Eagle Cove’s insistence that the expansive, year-round Bible camp be placed on the subject property,” wrote Kanne, noting that Eagle Cove has never considered another location.
Eagle Cove also said the town and county misled them to believe they could obtain a conditional use permit, causing considerable delay, expense, and uncertainty.
The town and the county maintained a consistent stance against construction of a year-round recreational camp, the panel noted, but remained open to a church or a school.
Finally, the court rejected Eagle Cove’s claim that Wisconsin’s Constitution (Art. I, § 18), gives religious practitioners more protection than federal law. However, the panel said all religious organizations are subject to “normally acceptable” laws, like taxes, and the zoning laws that restricted Eagle Cove’s Bible camp are normally acceptable.