Upper Arlington News

Court sides with city in Tree of Life lawsuit

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A federal court last week ruled Upper Arlington did not discriminate against a religious organization that sought to open a school in the city's largest office building.

In a decision filed April 18, U.S. District Court Judge George C. Smith sided with the city and found it did not violate equal protection laws or the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in rejecting Tree of Life Christian Ministries' plans to open a school at 5000 Arlington Centre Blvd.

While Upper Arlington City Attorney Jeanine Hummer said she expects an appeal, at least for now the city has won a land-use dispute that has continued since Tree of Life purchased the 254,000-square-foot building in August 2010.

"The city prevailed in its motion for judgment," Hummer said. "We were pleased to have that decision."

In ruling in the city's favor, Smith stated that Upper Arlington doesn't treat religious schools differently than non-religious schools, and noted that all schools are banned from the Office and Research District (ORC), where Tree of Life's property is located.

Further, the judge found Tree of Life knew schools were not permitted in the ORC prior to purchasing the building, which formerly housed an America Online corporate office.

"(The city) argues, and the court agrees, that any burden imposed on (Tree of Life) was self-inflicted," Smith wrote. "(Tree of Life) was fully aware of the zoning restrictions when it purchased the building.

"(Tree of Life) was specifically informed by Upper Arlington City Council that 'a private school is neither a permitted or a conditional use in the Office and Research District and that rezoning is required if (Tree of Life) plans to pursue a private school at this location."

Smith added that "despite this clear instruction" Tree of Life initially failed to seek a rezoning, opting instead to apply for a conditional use permit.

When Tree of Life did unsuccessfully apply for its property to be rezoned, Smith found that "Tree of Life was treated just as any other private school would have been treated, irrespective of religion."

Erik Stanley, an attorney for Kansas-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tree of Life, said Tree of Life plans to appeal.

"We're studying the opinion and we're more than likely going to appeal to the 6th Circuit," he said. "We believe the Upper Arlington zoning code does violate federal law.

Stanley said federal law issues were addressed in Judge Smith's ruling but have not been addressed by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We disagree with Judge Smith," he said." Judge Smith's ruling was incorrect."

Since purchasing its 15.8-acre property, Tree of Life's attempts to gain exemptions for a private school at the site were rejected three times by the Upper Arlington Board of Zoning and Planning.

Tree of Life currently operates a school for students in preschool through fifth grade in Clintonville and another in Dublin. It also has a school for students in grades 6-12 on Northridge Road in Columbus.

Tree of Life had argued that it needed to open a facility in Upper Arlington because its other schools were located in church buildings that had limited space. It also maintained it had no long-term leases for those schools.

Tree of Life is seeking an Upper Arlington school that immediately would serve 530 students and could eventually grow to an enrollment of no more than 900 students. Attorneys for the organization have said it would have a 100-person staff and would generate nearly $3 million in annual payroll.

City officials repeatedly opposed the plan because the ORC is the city's largest office complex and the area is not zoned to permit schools.

The complex makes up 1.1 percent of the city's total land and is specifically zoned for businesses that would generate substantial commercial tax revenue, city officials have said.

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

"Throughout this process, the city has stated to Tree of Life ... that their property was not zoned properly (for a school)," Hummer said. "They chose to purchase their property knowing they did not have the proper zoning."

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