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San Antonio Express: Leon Valley Church Wins Zoning Fight

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

The Becket Fund’s Lori Windham was quoted in a piece by the San Antonio Express regarding Elijah Group’s recent victory in a federal appeals court.

The Restoration Centre, a church on a commercial strip on Bandera Road just outside Loop 410, has won a dispute of more than two years with the city of Leon Valley over the legality of a zoning ordinance that said the church couldn’t hold worship services on its property.

This month, a U.S. appellate court reversed a district court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Elijah Group, which owns the church. The group argued that the ordinance violated religious protection laws and the U.S. and Texas constitutions.

Restoration Centre pastor Darryl Crain said he was relieved by the outcome and ready to move on. “Oh man, you don’t even know,” he said. “We’ve just been very, very ecstatic.”

Leon Valley, which is landlocked by San Antonio, changed the ordinance in 2007 to create a retail corridor along Bandera Road. The change restricted churches to properties zoned “B-3,” but when the church applied to switch from its B-2 designation to B-3, the city denied the request.

The previous owner, the Church on the Rock, received a special permit to operate in a B-2 zone, but the ordinance change eliminated this option for the Restoration Centre when it opened in 2008. But some nonretail, nonreligious properties still were allowed to obtain the permits.

The Elijah Group argued that the city was unfairly targeting the church because of its tax-exempt status and its location in a primary commercial zone. “The city wanted this (property) to be retail,” said Lori Windham, the group’s attorney for the appeal. “They were very clear about that.”

The church continued to hold services in the building throughout the court proceedings.

The district court ruled in favor of the city in November 2009, and the Elijah Group promptly appealed. The appellate court ruled that the ordinance violated a clause of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because it allowed nonretail entities such as private clubs to obtain special permits but prevented the church from doing so.

City Manager Manuel Longoria said the city hasn’t decided if it will appeal the ruling or change the ordinance. “We’re still in the process of studying the legal opinion,” he said.

Windham said, “I don’t think they have a very good shot if they appeal.”

Crain, the pastor, said the church will shift its focus toward raising money to buy the property, which it leases, and advance its efforts to reopen a school and day care center it closed during the lawsuit.

Despite the ordeal, he said he doesn’t harbor resentment toward the city.