Church can build in Wayzata neighborhood

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka has won the right to expand in a residential suburban Minneapolis neighborhood after taking its case to court, an example of a legal fight between religious freedom and local zoning rules happening around the country.

A federal court-mediated settlement was reached last week between the church and the city of Wayzata that permits the church to tear down a house and build a church and parking lot.

The city said it had resisted the plan because wanted to protect the neighborhood. Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox said the city didn’t intend to deny anyone’s religious freedom.

“It’s heavily wooded, and it provides an important buffer between all of the traffic activity and lights on the freeway, and the neighborhood to the south,” Willcox said of the property overlooking Highway 12.

Church spokeswoman Alison Albrecht said she was happy the congregation will be able to remain in Wayzata, where — despite the Minnetonka in the church’s name — it has worshipped since 1965.

“Importantly, we also hope the city will now change its regulations so that other religious groups are no longer prevented from locating here,” she told the Star Tribune.

The settlement also requires the city and its insurer to pay the church $500,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.

The 2000 federal law under which the church sued Wayzata permits religious projects to trump local zoning restrictions. The law is being tested in a growing number of communities around the country, including in California, Maryland, Colorado and elsewhere.

In its 2010 federal suit, the Unitarian church also charged Wayzata with violating its First Amendment rights to free speech and religious worship.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city must help the church acquire two small adjacent parcels of land along Highway 12 owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In exchange, the church will drop its lawsuit and agree to work through the city’s normal application and permitting process to build the new church, which it must do within the next six years.

Willcox said the city had to settle the case or face the prospect of exceeding its insurance cap and exposing its taxpayers to additional open-ended legal costs.

“It became clear that ending this expensive and detrimental proceeding was in the overall best interest of the citizens of Wayzata,” he said.

The agreement still must be approved by the Wayzata City Council. Willcox expected that to happen at the council’s Jan. 17 meeting.


Information from: Star Tribune