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Church prepares court fight to save land from developers

WASHINGTON (BP)–Lawyers for the Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos, Calif., will seek a federal injunction to block officials in nearby Cypress from seizing 18 acres of church land and converting it into a shopping center, CNSNews.com reported May 30.

Church officials had wanted to relocate from their current site in Los Alamitos to the 18 acres in Cypress, but the Cypress redevelopment agency voted 4-0 May 28 to invoke its power of eminent domain and obtain the land, encompassing six adjoining properties purchased by the congregation in 1999 for, $13 million.

Unless the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California says otherwise, the 4,000 members of the Cottonwood Christian Center will be forced to sell their 18 acres to the city and find another place to build a new church campus.

Jon Curtis, the attorney representing Cottonwood, said the city is in violation of laws under the U.S. Constitution, the California Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and redevelopment laws.

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“Cottonwood currently has existing litigation against the city for basically their discriminatory and wrongful acts,” Curtis said, referencing lawsuits against the city in both federal and state courts. “Cottonwood will certainly vigorously oppose the city forcibly taking their land.”

Curtis added that RLUIPA was designed to protect churches from actions such as the one Cypress officials decided to take.

“Throwing out a church for a retail use solely because of sales tax and property taxes that would be accumulated is basically … discriminating against the religious organization,” he said.

David Belmer, community development director for the city of Cypress, said the city’s actions are in the best interest of the whole community.

“They have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the city such that it has sufficient revenues to provide the services our residents have come to expect,” Belmer said.

“The recognition of this piece of property is in our strategic redevelopment area and its development for commercial enterprising uses is key or critical to the successful build-up of our project area,” he said.

Belmer said Tuesday’s vote does not mean eminent domain will be used more frequently against churches in the future.

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“Does this action threaten every church in Cypress? Absolutely not,” Belmer said. “Does this action mean there is going to be some rampant move to condemn church property throughout our city, the state and the country? I’m hoping that most reasonable people will find that idea farfetched.

“This was a strategic piece of property in a key project area in our city, and our interest predates Cottonwood’s interest,” he said. “That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”

Mike Wilson, a spokesman for Cottonwood, said the religious community’s rights are being violated.

“They all said we have to do this for the good of the city for tax dollars,” Wilson said. “It is just not right to violate the rights of a minority of people or it’s not right to violate the rights of a few people for the benefit of a greater number of people.

“That is basically what they are doing — they are violating our rights because they want tax dollars,” he said.

In 2000, when Cottonwood filed its application with the city for the construction of a new church campus, the city refused and instead entered into exclusive negotiations with the retail company Costco. The plan called for a Costco store to anchor a shopping center on the land still owned by the Cottonwood church.

Cottonwood’s senior pastor, Bayless Conley, told CNSNews.com that with all the available land around Cottonwood’s 18-acre tract, there is little reason for the city to pursue its action.

“Considering we are only 18 acres in a 300-acre redevelopment zone — and we are the only one being asked to move — the process felt imbalanced … ,” Conley said.

The issue prompted several California assemblymen to send a letter to the Cypress city council urging members to reconsider their decision to use eminent domain in trying to seize the land.

“By choosing a big box retail center over church property, the city is sending a message that material wealth is more important than the spiritual and moral well-being of a community,” wrote Republican Assemblyman Ken Maddox in a letter cosigned by five other Republican representatives. “This hostility toward religious expression is disturbing considering the positive contribution churches make to a city.”

The letter added, “The City of Cypress is in danger of becoming nationally known for its anti-church activities. We are certain the city can do better in its relationship to people of faith and improved quality of life for residents.”

Maddox, in an interview with CNSNews.com, said he was “outraged” when he learned of the city’s treatment of the church. “I found it incredibly disturbing that a city would seize a church and then turn it into a retail center,” he said. “If you look at the Soviet Union, Stalin seized churches to make them museums. In the city of Cypress, they are seizing a church to turn it into a Costco. It appears Stalin even had a higher purpose.”

Maddox also told CNSNews.com, “I think in some parts of the country, cities want churches because they add to the community. But in some places in California, especially in Southern California, they have a hostility toward churches, especially ones that are evangelical. You don’t even have to be a religious person to recognize the injustice taking place.”
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Pierce is a staff writer with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.