Mosque’s RLUIPA Claim Against the City of Yonkers is Dismissed on Procedural Grounds

In Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester et al v. City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board et al, 2018 WL 3323639 (2nd Cir. NY 7/6/2018), plaintiffs claimed that defendants “violated their rights under the United States Constitution; the New York State Constitution; the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc; the New York Civil Rights Law § 40-c; and the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, Article 78, N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 7801 et seq., by discriminating against plaintiffs on account of plaintiffs’ religious affiliation.”

The Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester (“ICCMW”) purchased certain real property in the City of Yonkers to use as a Mosque.  The property was zoned for use as a residence or a house of worship.

According to plaintiffs’ complaint, ICCMW and its members started to experience animosity and hostility from the public on several occasions, and an effort started to designate the Property as a landmark, which was “a pretext used to prevent ICCMW, its members and its congregation from building a Mosque.”

On May 27, 2016, Mayor Spano signed Resolution No. 64-2016 designating the Property as a landmark. Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the Property’s status as a landmark “establishes different standards for [p]laintiffs’ proposed and future renovations to the [P]roperty than those that have been applied, and will continue to be applied, to similar proposed land uses” of other property owners.

Plaintiffs commenced an action in federal district court challenging the landmark designation. The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and also found the case was not ripe because ICCMW had not complied with the “final-decision requirement.”  ICCMW failed to apply for the “certificate of appropriateness” that could have enabled them to pursue their construction projects despite the landmark designation.

The Court cited to the first prong of the Williamson County analysis, also known as the final-decision requirement, which “requires the [plaintiff] to obtain a final, definitive position as to the application of the relevant zoning law to the property from the municipal entity responsible for those laws.” That is to say, “plaintiff cannot seek federal court review of a zoning ordinance or provision until it has submitted at least one meaningful application for a variance” from the restrictions of the land-use laws.

In this case, the Court found that plaintiffs had not yet received a final decision with respect to the landmarking of the Property. The City of Yonkers’ Landmark Law provided a process by which owners of a landmarked property can receive authorization to alter the property. First, the City’s Landmark Law Section 45-8 provides that owners may apply for a “certificate of appropriateness,” and if the certificate is denied, it also provides for appellate review. Second, the City’s Landmark Law Section 45-10 provides that, if the certificate of appropriateness is denied in any respect, the owner may apply for relief based on economic hardship.

Plaintiffs argued that (i) the Court should apply the general ripeness analysis, rather than the specific ripeness analysis for land-use claims, (ii) they need not seek a certificate of appropriateness or apply for economic hardship, because such steps would be futile, (iii) the ripeness inquiry does not apply when the claim is that the land-use restriction was imposed out of discriminatory animus, and (iv) the matter is ripe because there is no justification for requiring plaintiffs to seek a certificate of appropriateness or economic hardship, as such a requirement would subject ICCMW to additional delays, expenses, and uncertainty.

The Court disagreed, rejecting each of Plaintiffs’ arguments.

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