Friday, July 6, 2018

Islamic Center land dispute is not yet ripe for lawsuit

An Islamic Center sued the City of Yonkers because it wanted to build a mosque on property that the City later designated with landmark status. The trial court dismissed the case as unripe, and the Court of Appeals affirms.

The case is Islamic Community Center v. City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board, a summary order decided on July 6. After the organization identified property for the mosque, since the property had fallen into a state of disrepair, before the Center closed on the purchase, it met with local officials to confirm that they could use the property as a mosque. The Court writes, "Yonkers city officials confirmed that the property was zoned for use either as a residence or a house of worship." However, another community organization had filed an application to designate the property as a landmark. The Mayor eventually signed a resolution to that effect. That leads to this lawsuit; the Community Center argues the landmark designation violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits religious discrimination in land-use decisions.

We don't yet know if this a real case of religious discrimination. That's because the courts hold that the case is not yet ripe for judicial resolution. We learn this in administrative and constitutional law classes in law school: some cases cannot be brought until local decisionmaking is final. Ensuring the case is ripe for judicial review allows the court to have a full record on the decisionmaking before it. Ripeness also allows the local government to make decisions in a local manner before the federal courts get involved, as "land use disputes are uniquely matters of local concerns more aptly suited for local resolution."

The case is unripe because "ICCMW failed to apply for the 'certificate of appropriateness' that would, if granted, enable them to pursue their construction projects despite the landmark designation." Here is the Court's reasoning:

ICCMW argues that applying for a certificate of appropriateness would have no bearing on the alleged harm, because “this process cannot reverse or amend the landmark designation.” Appellant’s Br. at 36. “In fact, the Certificate of Appropriateness process is the harm caused to Appellants—it is an additional burden that ICCMW must now overcome given the discriminatory landmark designation.” Id. Yet ICCMW seems to unwittingly reflect the very rationales underlining the final-decision rule . . . because at no point in its briefing was it clear exactly how the landmark designation impacted its ability to use its property, let alone how the designation substantially burdened its ability to practice its religious faith. The final-decision rule is designed to aid courts in understanding exactly how a litigant is being harmed by a land use designation, and to prevent litigants from rushing into federal courts when the harm could be avoided through a local process. ICCMW’s failure to attain a final decision on its application by availing itself of the local procedure that could remedy its alleged harm—whatever that may be, since none has yet been articulated—bars it from litigating this claim in federal court.

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