Upper Arlington News

Final briefs in Tree of Life case due April 11


Attorneys for Tree of Life Christian Ministries and the city of Upper Arlington are scheduled to file final arguments next month in a case to determine if a religious school has the right to operate within the city's largest office complex.

U.S. District Judge George C. Smith has set an April 11 deadline for both sides to file final briefs in an ongoing dispute over Tree of Life's ability to open a private school in the former America Online corporate office building.

It's unclear when a decision in the case might come down, but Smith's impending ruling is expected to determine if the city engaged in religious discrimination against Tree of Life by maintaining no school can operate at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd.

According to Upper Arlington officials, the property is in the Office and Research District, which currently makes up 1.1 percent of the city's total land and is specifically zoned for businesses that would generate substantial commercial tax revenue.

Erik Stanley, an attorney for Kansas-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tree of Life, said Smith has indicated the case will receive scheduling priority.

"We're now going back to the court to decide the case on the merits," Stanley said. "The judge entered an order saying once the briefings are completed, he's planning to expedite the case."

Upper Arlington City Attorney Jeanine Hummer said Stanley's view of the case represented "a correct assessment" and added the city is still completing its final brief.

Tree of Life purchased the former America Online building in 2010. Since then, the Upper Arlington Board of Zoning and Planning has voted three times to reject the organization's requests to allow exceptions for a private school at the site.

Last November, BZAP voted 6-0 against a request to rezone the 15.8-acre property off Henderson Road to a Residential Suburban District.

Tree of Life wants to open a school for students in preschool through 12th grade that immediately would serve 530 students and could eventually grow to an enrollment of no more than 900 students.

Tree of Life representatives also have said the school would initially have a 100-person staff with an annual payroll of nearly $3 million. That payroll would produce $60,000 in annual income taxes for the city.

City officials have countered by pointing to the city's master plan, which states only 4.7 percent of Upper Arlington's total land is dedicated for retail and office uses, and directs city officials to maintain or enhance the current commercial land-use base.