647 F.3d 606 (6th Cir. 2011), 09-2388, Northridge Church v. Charter Tp. of Plymouth

Docket Nº:09-2388.
Citation:647 F.3d 606
Opinion Judge:COLE, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:NORTHRIDGE CHURCH, fka Temple Baptist Church, a Michigan ecclesiastical corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CHARTER TOWNSHIP OF PLYMOUTH; Plymouth Township Planning Board, Defendants-Appellees.
Attorney:Martin L. Roth, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant. Timothy S. Wilhelm, Johnson, Rosati, LaBarge, Aseltyne & Field, P.C., Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellees. Martin L. Roth, Richard C. Godfrey, P.C., Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, Illinois, Daniel P. Dalton, Tomkiw Dalt...
Judge Panel:Before: COLE, CLAY, and GILMAN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:July 28, 2011
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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647 F.3d 606 (6th Cir. 2011)

NORTHRIDGE CHURCH, fka Temple Baptist Church, a Michigan ecclesiastical corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

CHARTER TOWNSHIP OF PLYMOUTH; Plymouth Township Planning Board, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 09-2388.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

July 28, 2011

Argued: June 8, 2011.

Page 607

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 608

ARGUED:

Martin L. Roth, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant.

Timothy S. Wilhelm, Johnson, Rosati, LaBarge, Aseltyne & Field, P.C., Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Martin L. Roth, Richard C. Godfrey, P.C., Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, Illinois, Daniel P. Dalton, Tomkiw Dalton, PLC, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, for Appellant.

Marcelyn A. Stepanski, Johnson, Rosati, LaBarge, Aseltyne & Field, P.C., Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellees.

Before: COLE, CLAY, and GILMAN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

COLE, Circuit Judge.

This appeal is the latest chapter in the rocky relationship between a church and the township in which it sits. Plaintiff-Appellant Northridge Church is a sizeable ecclesiastical organization located in Defendant-Appellee Charter Township of Plymouth, Michigan. Seventeen years ago, Northridge sought a special permit from Plymouth to build its church and related structures in the Township. Fearful of the impact Northridge would have on the community, Defendant-Appellee Plymouth Township Planning Board denied Northridge's application. Northridge fought back through commencement of this litigation and wrestled a partial victory: It reached a consent judgment with Plymouth allowing Northridge to build its church, albeit with a number of limitations. Nearly sixteen years later, Northridge seeks to modify or set aside the consent judgment to which it once agreed. Because the consent judgment was not void when entered and Northridge has not shown that the factual or legal landscape has unexpectedly and dramatically changed since that time, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment denying Northridge's motion to modify or set aside the consent judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Northridge Church (" Northridge" ), formerly known as Temple Baptist Church, is an ecclesiastical corporation in Michigan. In 1994, Northridge petitioned the Charter Township of Plymouth, Michigan (" Township" ) for special land-use exemptions to use a piece of property it had purchased in Plymouth for a church and related recreational and accessory purposes. Previously, the property was a 55.8 acre plot zoned for agricultural use. To qualify for the changed zoning category, Northridge had to prove that the requested zoning uses were: (1) " in harmony with the appropriate and orderly development of the district and [would] not be detrimental to the orderly development of the adjacent districts" ; (2) regarding " vehicular circulation[,] ... in the best interest of the public health, safety and welfare" ; (3) " not objectionable to nearby uses or dwellings by reason of noise fumes or flash of lights or ... potential of endangering the public safety" ; (4) regarding " proposed site layout [, adequate to] ... ensure [that] the use and associated activities [would] not hinder project development or existing uses on adjacent properties" ; and (5) regarding " location, use and assembly of persons in connection with the [proposed] uses[,] ... not hazardous to the Planning Unit." (Letter of Plymouth Cmty. Dev. Dir. of May 12, 1994, Dist. Ct. Docket No. 50-5, at 42-43 (citing Plymouth Zoning Ordinance § 2.7).)

At that time, the area surrounding Northridge's property included a multiple-family residential development (to the north), a single-family residential area and church (to the south), another single-family residential

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area accessible only through an unpaved road (to the east), and an expressway (to the west). Northridge specifically sought to build " a three wing building complex developed in phases, and outdoor sports and recreation facilities for softball, soccer, volleyball, picnicking and passive recreational activities." (McKenna Assocs. Cmty. Planning Letter of July 1, 1994, Dist. Ct. Docket No. 50-5, at 46.) Ultimately, this project would constitute " 220,000 square feet of building area (upon completion of all phases), over 1,350 parking spaces, and a seating capacity of 4,000 people in the main auditorium/worship center." ( Id. )

After a hearing, the Plymouth Township Planning Board (collectively with the Township, " Plymouth" ) denied Northridge's application. Plymouth did so because: (1) " the proposed location, size and character of the use will be in conflict and not in harmony with the appropriate and orderly development of the planned unit in which it is situated" ; (2) " the proposed location, size and character of the use will be detrimental to the orderly development of adjacent districts and uses" ; (3) " the vehicular circulation of the proposed use will not be in the best interest of the public health, safety and welfare in relationship to the egress and ingress to the site and adjacent residential use and vehicular turning movements" ; (4) " the location, use and assembly of persons in connection with the proposed use will not be in harmony and will be hazardous and detrimental to the planning unit in which the use is located" ; (5) " the location, use and assembly of persons in connection with the proposed use will be in conflict with the normal traffic of the planned unit" ; (6) " the proposed use will be in conflict with the spirit and intent of the master plan of the community and this area specifically" ; and (7) " the proposed use and structures are not compatible with the definition of church as found in Ordinance 83 and said use and structures are out of scale with the low intensity residential use existing and projected to this area." (Plymouth Twp. Planning Comm. Aug. 17, 1994 Mtg. Minutes, Dist. Ct. Docket No. 50-5, at 79-80.) In short, Northridge " just doesn't fit here with this high intensity use." ( Id. at 81; see also McKenna Assocs. Cmty. Planning Letter of July 1, 1994, Dist. Ct. Docket No. 50-5, at 46-53; McKenna Assocs. Cmty. Planning Letter of Aug. 12, 1994, Dist. Ct. Docket No. 50-5, at 58-63.)

Northridge then sued Plymouth in the Wayne County Circuit Court in Michigan. In its complaint, Northridge alleged that Plymouth's zoning restrictions violated its right to freely exercise its religion under: the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; Article 1, Section 4 of the Michigan Constitution; and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (" RFRA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq., held unconstitutional by City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997). Northridge also alleged that these zoning restrictions, and Plymouth's actions thereunder, violated its rights to freedom of speech and assembly under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Plymouth removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Northridge and Plymouth ultimately agreed to a consent judgment, which the district court entered on October 27, 1995. That judgment permitted Northridge to build— and use— a church and related structures on its 55.8 acre property, but with certain restrictions. Relevant to this litigation are the limits on: the total auditorium seating (for no more than 3,500 individuals); the total number of parking spaces (no more than 1,167); parking on

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Northridge's lawn, driveways, or approaches, or on the roads surrounding Northridge (all prohibited); the number of musical service events (no more than fourteen annually, excluding Christmas and Easter, and only at certain times of day); the activities that could take place on Northridge's property (using any part of the land " as a soup kitchen or to provide housing on a temporary or permanent basis" is prohibited); traffic patterns entering and exiting the property (turning right out of the parking lot is prohibited); and Northridge's use of its outdoor areas (only picnicking, baseball, fishing, running, and outdoor Easter sunrise services are allowed). The district court retained jurisdiction to oversee and enforce the consent judgment.

At the time that Northridge entered into the consent judgment, the average weekly attendance at its Sunday services approximated 1,100. The attendance, however, had grown to approximately 14,000 by the time of this renewed litigation. This growth has required Northridge to hold several weekly services due to space limitations, and has prevented Northridge from undertaking some non-service activities because of the other restrictions. The parking limitations, while initially more than adequate, now require Northridge to spend as much as $300,000 each year on shuttle costs. Also, the area surrounding Northridge has experienced some development, and the road bordering Northridge is now paved.

Due to the expansion of its membership and desired services, Northridge moved to reopen this case and modify or set aside the consent judgment under Rule 60(b) on September 30, 2008. Plymouth opposed this action, and the district court denied Northridge's motion. Northridge then filed a motion for reconsideration, but the district court denied that as well. Northridge timely appealed both denials.

II. JURISDICTION

Plymouth first argues that we do not have jurisdiction to adjudicate Northridge's consent-judgment challenge because the consent judgment does not affect rights protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (" RLUIPA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. This contention is plainly incorrect. The district...

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