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The city of Cypress, Calif., has authorized the seizure of a local church’s land, arguing that a house of worship is not the “best and highest use” for the property.
City officials hope to take ownership of Cottonwood Christian Center’s land through eminent domain. While city officials say that economic development on the property would be better for the citizens of Cypress than a church, the church complains the city is being discriminatory. Cottonwood fears that if it succumbs to city officials’ dictates, a precedent will be set and cities across the nation will be encouraged to seize church property to build businesses that will provide more tax dollars.
Cottonwood decided to build a new church building when their membership grew to be over 4,000, and their current building could only hold 700. The Rev. Mike Wilson, Cottonwood’s project manager, said the church was out of space and had to rent a local school auditorium and hold four services on Sundays to accommodate the crowds.
In September 1999, after much negotiating to put several parcels of land together, Cottonwood purchased an 18-acre piece of property for $13 million. After trying for three years without success to obtain approvals from the city to build a church on the land, the church filed a lawsuit against the city in January.
On Cottonwood’s website, Senior Pastor Bayless Conley stated, “We had to file suit to preserve our legal rights.”
David Belmer, community development director for Cypress, says the city did nothing to prompt a lawsuit. He indicates that the property Cottonwood purchased had been in the city’s redevelopment project area for 12 years and that Cypress officials told Cottonwood the city had plans for the land before the church even bought it.
Cottonwood argues that the land sat idle for many years before they purchased it and that if the city wanted to use the land, it should have done so before.
The Cypress City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to seize Cottonwood’s property by eminent domain and forcibly buy the land from the church for $14.5 million, an amount lower than Cottonwood says the land is worth. The city wants the land for commercial development to provide revenue for the city and jobs for Cypress citizens.
“Why should the church be the best and highest use for land facing two arterial highways?” asked Bill Wynder, city attorney, at a recent Cypress hearing.
The Orange County Register quotes Jon Curtis, Cottonwood’s attorney, as saying, “It’s the purest form of discrimination.”
Bayless told the Register he was disappointed with the city council’s decision and believes it was “morally wrong.”
Cottonwood is seeking an injunction attached to their lawsuit to stop the city from confiscating their land.
“We have to go as far as necessary,” Wilson told WorldNetDaily. “We’re committed.”
Wilson said the city doesn’t want a church on the land because the church won’t generate taxes for the city like a business would. It’s religious discrimination, he said. Cottonwood believes the city is in blatant violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which was passed to prevent discrimination against non-revenue producing organizations like churches.
Belmer said the city is considering approving the construction of a Costco warehouse on the land and that he does not believe seizing the land is in violation of the RLUIPA.
Eminent domain laws were originally designed to make way for roads and dams, but cities are routinely using them as a means to build businesses.
In a flyer sent to residents of Cypress and Los Alamitos, where Cottonwood is currently located, Cottonwood says Cypress city officials want a Costco instead of a church because of greed. The city isn’t strapped for more tax money, Cottonwood argues, because a January city report read that 25 percent of the city’s budget gets put into reserves. Cottonwood is convinced that “if the city’s motive is not need, it must be greed.”
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