Adam Cmty. Ctr. v. City of Troy

Decision Date26 August 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 18-13481
Citation482 F.Supp.3d 640
Parties ADAM COMMUNITY CENTER, a domestic nonprofit corporation, a/k/a Adam Community (ACC), a domestic nonprofit corporation, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF TROY, a Michigan municipal corporation, Troy City Council, City of Troy Planning Commission, City of Troy Zoning Board of Appeals, and Daniel Agauas, Glen Clark, Thomas Desmond, David Eisenbacher, Orestis Kaltsounis, Padma Kuppa, Dave Lambert, James McCauley, individually and in their official capacities as members of the Troy Zoning Board of Appeals, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

Amy V. Doukoure, CAIR-MI, Canton, MI, for Plaintiff.

Allan T. Motzny, Lori G. Bluhm, Troy City Law Department, Troy, MI, for Defendants.


Nancy G. Edmunds, United States District Judge

The first amendment to the Constitution begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." "These provisions, made applicable to the states by the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment, forbid government to burden the free exercise of any religion or to favor one religion over another." Islamic Ctr. of Mississippi, Inc. v. City of Starkville, Miss. , 840 F.2d 293, 294 (5th Cir. 1988).

In the City of Troy, Michigan, property owners seeking to establish a place of worship must comply with certain setback requirements outlined in the City's zoning ordinance. These requirements are additional to the zoning rules for general commercial properties. According to Plaintiff, this means that a certain property may be fit for general commercial business use, but not for use as a place of worship, even though the only difference between the two proposed uses of the property is that people will use the place of worship to practice their religion. In this lawsuit, Plaintiff claims the City's zoning ordinance, and the City's conduct in denying Plaintiff's request for a variance from the zoning ordinance so that Plaintiff could use an existing commercial building as a mosque and community center, violates Plaintiff's constitutional rights.

Pending before the Court are motions for summary judgment filed by the individual members of the zoning board of appeals (collectively, the "Individual Defendants")1 who voted to deny Plaintiff's variance request. (ECF Nos. 30, 32.).2 The Individual Defendants seek summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims asserted directly against them pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 on the basis of qualified immunity or quasi-judicial immunity. On March 4, 2020, the Court held a hearing in connection with the motions.

While the record at this stage suggests Plaintiff's claims against the Entity Defendants may have merit, that issue is not presently before the Court. The only issue before the Court is whether the Individual Defendants must face personal liability for their vote to deny Plaintiff's request for a variance. Because the Court finds that they should not, the Individual Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims against them in their personal capacity. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ motions.

A. Plaintiff's Application for Variance

Plaintiff Adam Community Center is a religious non-profit organization based in the City of Troy, Michigan.3 Plaintiff describes its members as individuals and families who reside and work within the City. Plaintiff specifically caters to members of the Islamic faith and currently provides religious and nonreligious classes that are open to all community members in an office building located in the City. However, Plaintiff alleges it is unable to hold religious worship and holiday services at its current facility, and that there are no Muslim places of worship within the City. As a result, Plaintiff claims its community members must travel to various places outside of the City to engage in prayer and worship services.

Plaintiff alleges that since 2013 it has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain or construct a mosque or Muslim place of worship within the City. This lawsuit arises out of Plaintiff's unsuccessful efforts, and in particular, the City's most recent denial of a variance application submitted by Plaintiff to utilize an existing commercial building as a place of worship. And Defendants’ motions concern only the Individual Defendants’ conduct in denying this particular variance application.

In its Complaint, Plaintiff states that it decided to purchase an existing commercial property located at 3635 Rochester Road, Troy MI 48085 to serve as its mosque and community center. The commercial property formerly served as a DSW Warehouse and a hibachi steakhouse. Plaintiff claims it requires a building that can serve as both a community center and a mosque because there are only a few days of the week during which actual worship will take place, and that this particular property fits its needs.

The property at issue is flanked on two sides by other commercial properties, is fronted on one side by a major road, and the rear of the property abuts a line of residential properties. The property is fully developed as a commercial building, half of which is currently fit for use as a restaurant and banquet hall while the other half functions as an empty warehouse. The property is located within the City's general business district and is zoned for use as a general commercial building. According to Plaintiff's interpretation of the City's zoning regulations, places of worship are a use that is permitted as a matter of right within an area zoned for general business. Plaintiff alleges that the building is also permitted for the A-3 type of use, which Plaintiff contends permits the building to be used for large gatherings or assembly.

The property has 126 parking spaces—one more than is required by City's zoning regulations for use of the property as a restaurant. The parking lot and usable parking spaces currently reach the property lines on three sides of the property. The fourth property line abuts the City sidewalk and ingress to the parking lot. Plaintiff alleges that there is presently no setback for the parking spaces even though the zoning regulations require a thirty-foot setback. In other words, the parking spaces run the entire length of the property line that abuts the residential district. And the only buffer between the commercial property and the residential district is a six-foot brick wall.

Although places of worship are permitted within general business districts, the City implemented special additional zoning regulations that apply to the use of a commercial building as a place of worship. Zoning ordinance Section 6.21(E) requires that all sides of a building utilized as a place of worship have a minimum of a fifty-foot setback. Section 6.21(F) goes on to forbid parking in the setback areas that front areas zoned for residential purposes. It also requires that any such setback area be landscaped. Plaintiff claims that it is impossible for it to use the existing building and comply with the zoning ordinances for religious places of worship because: (1) there presently exists only a ten foot setback in the front of the building that abuts the commercial road; (2) there is only a forty eight foot setback in the back of the building that is closest to the residential property; (3) there is no setback on the north side of the building that abuts another commercial property because that is not required for commercial buildings; and (4) compliance with the limitations on parking within the setback requirement for the rear and side yards of the existing building would eliminate nearly all of the necessary parking spaces that are required under the zoning ordinance for a place of worship of the size Plaintiff proposes.

Because Plaintiff allegedly could not comply with the City's zoning regulations for places of worship, Plaintiff applied for a variance. After receiving initial approval of its variance application by City employee Paul Evans, Plaintiff submitted its application for approval to the City of Troy Zoning Board of Appeals (the "ZBA").

B. Consideration of Plaintiff's Variance Request by the ZBA

The ZBA is a group of seven people appointed by the Troy City Council to make decisions on requests for variances from the City's zoning regulations. Defendant Clark is the chairman of the ZBA and has served on the ZBA for over ten years. Defendant Clark states that prior to a hearing to consider a variance, the board members receive a packet of information regarding the particular application for a variance from the Troy City Administration. The individual board members then review the packet of information, listen to the presentation at the hearing, and take comments from members of the general public in attendance at the hearing. The board members are also permitted to openly debate the application and to raise any questions or concerns they may have. Once any debate is completed, the members vote on the variance application.

In deciding whether to approve a variance, the board members consider whether the applicant satisfies five items of potential hardship listed in the zoning ordinance. These items are sometimes referred to by the parties as the practical difficulty factors. To learn about the exceptional characteristics of the property for which a variance is sought, the board members claim that they read the applicant's package, balance the requested variance against five practical difficulty factors, and assess whether compliance with the dimensional requirements of the zoning ordinance is more difficult than the majority of properties in the same district. Exceptional characteristics of the property considered by the board members in connection with variance applications include, but are not limited to, exceptional narrowness,...

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