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City seeks to oust church through eminent domain

WASHINGTON (BP)–Officials with the Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos, Calif. are promising a court battle after the city council in nearby Cypress decided not only to squash the center’s plans for a religious campus, but took a major step to seize the center’s 18-acre tract of land through eminent domain for the construction of a shopping center, according to CNSNews.com.

“I have never seen in my years of working with local government, a city do this, what they are doing, that is processing development on a property they don’t own, but also going toward this path of condemning and taking property from a church,” Cottonwood spokesperson Mary Urashima told CNSNews.com.

Jon Curtis, the lawyer for the non-denominational church, said Wednesday a legal fight would ensue in both state and federal courts.

“It’s accurate to say this is another step toward condemnation,” Curtis said, referring to the process in which a local government must first get a judge to condemn the land or property in question before that land can be obtained through eminent domain.

In January, Cottonwood filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming it was discriminating against the church and was in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The lawsuit alleges violations of the church’s First Amendment rights, which guarantee that government will not abridge freedom of religion, California redevelopment laws, and the equal protection clause in the California Environmental Quality Act.

The city’s decision could end a four-year effort by Cottonwood to build a new church campus, which would include a new church building, along with other structures to house classes, activities, and other community services.

In 1998, Cottonwood began assembling the 18 acres by purchasing six separate tracts of land from four different owners. In all, through tithing and donations by Cottonwood’s 4,000 attendees, the church spent $13 million on the land.

While Cottonwood was gathering plans for the project and keeping the city updated, the city had its own project in the works.

“For two years, the city looked at the planning process and the conceptual plans for what the church was proposing, and said they see what they are doing, but never told them they are talking to a developer of the shopping center until they got the letters of participation,” said Urashima.

The city’s plans for a new shopping center include a Costco store and undoubtedly would bring in more tax money than the Cottonwood Christian Center.

“With this action they’ve taken, declaring we are unfit for our property, it is very clear that’s their message: the issue’s about tax dollars,” said Cottonwood pastor Rev. Mike Wilson.

According to Wilson, Cottonwood told the city it would be willing to surrender its prime corner property and build on an adjacent property. However, on Monday, the Cypress City Council declared Cottonwood’s plan “unresponsive,” Costco’s plan “responsive,” and agreed to accept the shopping center project, Wilson said.

Wilson also alleges that the city made “a bogus offer” to the church, inviting it to participate in a retail project on the disputed property.

“We said we would participate, we will build a church. They deemed that response unresponsive,” Wilson said. “What they did on Monday night is they declared we were unresponsive … they would no longer need to speak with us, and that Costco is responsive and suitable, and they would pursue that avenue for retail on our property.”

When asked if Cottonwood would be compensated for the $13 million it spent to obtain the land in question, Wilson said any offer would likely be a low-ball figure. And Wilson added that because large tracts of land in Orange County are so scarce, the property is actually worth much more than $13 million.

Wilson said there is one major problem with the city’s plans. “They are wanting it for their own purposes, but they don’t own it,” he said. “They have not been forthright and have not dealt fairly with us.”

Curtis said the action by the city “strongly brings into question whether or not the city has been acting in good faith, or if their prior discussions with Cottonwood have been for public perception purposes.”

Calls made to the city of Cypress were not returned.
Pierce is a staff writer with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Jason Pierce