Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Balt. Cnty., Civil Action No. ELH-17-804

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtEllen Lipton Hollander United States District Judge
Docket NumberCivil Action No. ELH-17-804
Decision Date17 October 2017


Civil Action No. ELH-17-804


October 17, 2017


Plaintiff Hunt Valley Baptist Church ("HVBC" or the "Church") claims that it has been subjected to religious discrimination in connection with its zoning application for a "special exception" to construct a place of worship and related facilities on property located in Hunt Valley, Maryland. After the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (the "Board") denied the Special Exception application, the Church filed suit in this Court against the Board and Baltimore County (the "County"), defendants.

The Complaint (ECF 1), which is 53 pages in length, contains eight counts, as follows:1 violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. (Counts I, II, III); violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution (Count IV); violation of the Equal Protection Clause (Count VI) and the Due Process Clause (Count VII) of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; violation of Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count VIII); and judicial review of the "Majority Opinion and Order of the Board of Appeals for Baltimore County, dated

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February 22, 2017, for the matter of Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. Petition for Special Hearing and Special Exception . . . ." (Count IX). The federal constitutional claims are lodged pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The suit contains multiple prayers for relief (ECF 1 at 51-52), including:

1) A Declaration that the County's land use ordinances are unconstitutional on their face and as applied, because they violate the Free Exercise Cause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and RLUIPA. ECF 1 at 51, ¶ 1.

2) A Declaration that the denial of the Church's land use application is unconstitutional. Id. ¶ 2.

3) An order reversing the Board and approving the Church's application. Id. at 52, ¶ 3.

4) An order directing the Board to reverse the denial of the special exception and to grant it. Id. ¶ 4.

5) An order enjoining defendant from violating plaintiff's rights. Id. ¶ 5.

6) Compensatory damages in an unspecified sum. Id. ¶ 6.; and

7) Attorneys' fees. Id. ¶ 7.

Defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56. ECF 8. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 8-1) (collectively, "Motion") and the administrative record of the zoning case. ECF 8-2. Plaintiff opposes the Motion (ECF 11, "Opposition"), with exhibits. ECF 11-1 thorough ECF 11-3. Defendants have replied. ECF 13 ("Reply").

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Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 21, defendants have also moved "to drop" the Board as a defendant with respect to Counts IV, VI, VII, VIII, and IX (ECF 9), supported by a memorandum of law. ECF 9-1 (collectively, "Motion to Drop"). Plaintiff opposes the Motion to Drop. ECF 10. Defendants did not reply, and the time to do so has expired. See Local Rule 105.2(a).

The Court held a motions hearing on October 6, 2017, at which arguments were presented by counsel for the parties. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the motions in part and deny them in part.

I. Factual and Procedural Background2

Hunt Valley Baptist Church is an independent Baptist church that was established in 2004. ECF 1, ¶ 10. The Church is one of two independent Baptist churches located in Northern Baltimore County (id. ¶ 12), and most of its congregants reside in Baltimore County. Id. ¶ 11. The Church was "founded for the purpose of establishing and maintaining religious worship, evangelizing to the unsaved by proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the educating of believers in a manner consistent with the requirements of Holy Scripture, establishing and maintaining a ministry to help reform those with harmful addictions, and maintaining missionary activities . . . ." Id. ¶ 14. Further, the Church "believes that it has a religious obligation to evangelize to nonbelievers so that they may be saved, which is encompassed in its mission to support 'a great commission to proclaim the Gospel to all nations' including its local community and supporting missionaries abroad." ECF 1, ¶ 16.

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Initially, HVBC held services in a storefront located in a commercial shopping center in Timonium, Maryland. Id. ¶ 67. In 2008, the Church "began looking for a more permanent home." Id. ¶ 68. The Senior Pastor knew of the site located at 821 Shawan Road in Cockeysville, Maryland (the "Property"). Id. ¶ 69. However, the Property was not for sale in 2008. Id. ¶ 71.

In 2009, the Church moved to its current location at 1800 Worthington Heights Parkway in Cockeysville, Maryland (id. ¶¶ 18, 76), which is about three miles from the Property. Id. ¶ 77. According to the Church, its present location "does not permit it to adequately engage in its religious exercise." Id. ¶ 19. For example, to access the Church, congregants must drive for two miles along "a dark, unlit and winding local road" (id. ¶ 21), which is "dangerous at night." Id. ¶ 22. Furthermore, the current location is difficult to find (id. ¶ 24), as the building is only visible to people in the immediate area. Id. ¶ 23. Moreover, the Church cannot "proclaim anything to those who cannot find it." Id. ¶ 32.

HVBC also insists that its current facilities are inadequate because the building can no longer accommodate the size of the congregation and visitors. Id. ¶ 20. It explains that the current facility has seating for 350 people (id. ¶ 40), but up to 500 individuals attempt to attend religious services. Id. ¶ 41. And, the Church has only 84 parking spots, which is inadequate to meet its needs (id. ¶¶ 42-43), particularly during days of high attendance, such as Christmas and for Church events. Id. ¶ 52. The Church also hosts approximately 100 children for one week each summer for "Vacation Bible School." Id. ¶¶ 60-61. The Vacation Bible School uses the Church's gymnasium and all of its existing classroom space (id. ¶ 61) but, because of limitations on space, the Church has to turn away participants. Id. ¶ 62.

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In 2012, the owner of the Property agreed to sell his land to the Church for $900,000. ECF 1 ¶ 83; ECF 8-1 at 12. The Property is 16.6 acres in size and is improved with two single-family dwellings. ECF 1, ¶ 86.3 Baltimore County had approved a subdivision application for the Property in 2012. ECF 1, ¶¶ 110-113; see also ECF 8-1 at 11-12; ECF 13 at 12.

The Property is bordered to the north by Shawan Road, a "busy" two lane road, which carries approximately 21,161 cars per day. ECF 1, ¶¶ 89, 90. Interstate 83 is about a quarter-mile to the east of the Property (id.¶ 89; ECF 11 at 5) and is also close to the Hunt Valley Town Center, Hunt Valley Industrial Park, and two hotels. ECF 1, ¶¶ 95-98. Located immediately north of the Property is the Hayfields Country Club ("Hayfields"), which has an 18-hole golf course, a clubhouse, banquet facilities and other amenities, as well as residential homes, located on 475 acres. Id. ¶ 99. Immediately to the West of the Property is the St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church ("St. Mary's"), a 3.96-acre property that contains a 16,000-square foot house of worship with 79 parking spaces. Id. ¶ 105. Also nearby are the University of Maryland Extension (id. ¶ 104), the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier (id.), the Oregon Ridge Dinner Theatre (id. ¶ 106), and Oregon Ridge Park, with a paved lot and an outdoor pavilion for festivals and events. Id. ¶ 107.

Notably, the Property is situated in a watershed resource conservation area and is zoned R.C.4. Id. ¶ 87.4 However, "[u]nlike other RC-4 zoned areas of Baltimore County the immediate area around the [P]roperty is not rural in nature. There are a significant number of commercial, institutional and governmental use properties surrounding the Subject Property."

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Id. And, unlike many intersections in R.C.4. zoned areas, an intersection close to the Property "was recently improved and enlarged to accommodate the increasing volume of traffic (id. ¶ 91), and the intersection is "signalized, providing further traffic control and safety." Id. ¶ 92.

According to the Church, "God led them to the Subject Property" and "the Church is meant to be located there." ECF 1, ¶ 84. The Church's Senior Pastor regards the Property as "well situated for the Church's use, since it was on a major road, was large enough to accommodate the Church's ongoing growth and need for expanded facilities, was next door to another church, and was in close proximity to Interstate 83 and other existing development." Id. ¶ 70. In addition, the Church claims that the location of the Property is optimal because "it is visible to the community and would permit the Church to evangelize as it believes that it must, is central to where its members live and can accommodate their worship needs, and is of sufficient size to allow for the construction of their house of worship and related parking capacity." Id. ¶ 85. And, most of the Church's congregants pass the Property on their way to the Church's current location. Id. ¶ 80.


Maryland "delegates to local political subdivisions significant authority to regulate land use.[]" County Council of Prince George's Co. v. Zimmer Dev. Co., 444 Md. 490, 503, 120 A.3d 677, 685 (2015). And, local governments "are limited to the powers granted to them by the State." Id. at 504, 120 A.3d at 685.

Baltimore County has enacted various planning and zoning laws, pursuant to its status as a charter home rule county. Security Mgmt. Corp. v. Baltimore County, Md., 104 Md. App. 234, 236, 655 A.2d 1326, 1327 (1995) (Wilner, C.J.); see BALT. CNTY. CHARTER ("County Charter"), Art. I; Md. Const. Art. XI-A; Article 25A of...

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