The Lawletter Vol 35 No 3, February 11, 2011
After learning that a monumental 1925 church building would be deconsecrated, and fearing that the building could eventually be altered or demolished, a city council passed an ordinance declaring the parcel of land containing the church—and only that parcel—to be a historic district.
At first blush, this sounds like a case of spot zoning or the inhibition of religious exercise. Indeed, when the religious corporation sued the City in federal court, it put forward a dozen claims under state and federal law, many of them focused on the First Amendment.
But the outcome was decidedly in favor of the City. In Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield, C.A. No. 10‑cv‑30033‑MAP, 2011 WL 31288 (D. Mass. Jan. 4, 2011) (slip copy), the federal district court granted the City's motion for summary judgment by focusing on two themes: the fact that several of the claims were not ripe for adjudication and the fact that the City's ordinance was a proper implementation of an existing state law.
First, the state's Historic Districts Act clearly prohibits owners from making exterior alterations to an affected building within a district. For the religious corporation that owned the church, this could have created a serious religious problem, since its own laws can require some of the building's religious symbols to be removed as part of the deconsecration.
The prohibition found in the state law is anything but absolute, however. The law expressly allows alterations once the City's historic district commission has issued "a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non‑applicability or a certificate of hardship." Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40C, § 6. The plaintiff in Springfield had not requested any of these exemptions, and the city commission had not had an opportunity to grant or deny any such request. The plaintiff's mistake, according to the court, was in assuming that a denial was certain and that it would necessarily be prohibited from modifying the church building. 2011 WL 31288, at *6. Nor were the corporation's own plans very far along, thus preventing anyone from guessing at whether the ordinance would even come into play. Id. at *3. The corporation acknowledged that it was likely to leave the building's exterior mostly or entirely untouched if a future buyer agreed not to put the exterior symbols "to sordid use." Id. at *8.
Second, the focus of the claims that were ripe for adjudication was the assertion that the mere enactment of the single-parcel historic district violated the rights of the religious corporation that owned the property.
The court pointed out that an ordinance designating a particular district is not actually a new zoning law; rather, it is simply an implementation of the scheme established by the state's Historic Districts Act. Id. at *16. A designating ordinance is merely the City's means of implementing the existing Act, and it is the Act that gives the City broad discretion to make case-by-case decisions about individual properties. The single-parcel designation was not "nefarious," the court held, and the fact that the ordinance applies to just one property was of no importance. Id. at *13.