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California city, church settle on land dispute

WASHINGTON (BP)–A California city that sought to take property from a large church has agreed to buy the land instead.

Stymied last year by a federal judge in its attempt to condemn Cottonwood Christian Center’s 18 acres of prized property, the Cypress City Council voted Feb. 24 to purchase the land for $18.8 million. In the agreement, the church will pay $17 million for 29 acres in the vicinity on which to build its campus, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The battle over the church’s property gained the attention of churches, religious liberty advocates and municipal officials across the United States. Last May, the city of Cypress invoked eminent domain in order to obtain the church’s property in a redevelopment zone and requested it be condemned. The city hoped to sell the land to the discount chain Costco, which planned to build on the site.

Federal judge David Carter, however, issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the city’s action in August, ruling Cypress had discriminated against the church. The city substantially burdened the church’s religious rights under both the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Carter wrote in his opinion.

Cottonwood, a nondenominational church which has grown from about 50 members at its founding in 1983 to more than 4,000 adult members, holds its worship services in a building in Los Alamitos that seats 700 people. The church holds two Saturday services and four Sunday services each week to accommodate its members but still turns away people seeking to attend. It also uses shuttles to transport people from off-site parking lots to the church building.

The church put together six parcels of land in a Cypress redevelopment zone and closed on the purchase in 1999. While the church was seeking approval to build on the property, the city began action the next year to seek other use of the land. Commercial ownership would have enabled Cypress to receive tax revenue from property that would have produced no such benefit if owned by a church. When Cottonwood declined to sell the land for $14.5 million last February, the city council moved to invoke eminent domain.

In its Feb. 24 meeting, the four-member city council voted unanimously to purchase the property.

In ruling against the city in August, Carter said the two interests invoked by the city — the blight of the property and a need for revenue — in refusing to grant a conditional use permit to the church are not “sufficiently compelling to justify burdening Cottonwood’s religious exercise.” He also said Cypress, if it had a compelling reason to burden the church’s religious rights, had failed to use the “least restrictive means.” The city “has done the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill an ant,” Carter wrote.

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