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Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc. v. City of Mobile

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

May 23, 2019

THAI MEDITATION ASSOCIATION OF ALABAMA, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF MOBILE, ALABAMA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TERRY F. MOORER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter came before the Court for a non-jury trial that commenced on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, and concluded on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, with the Court's announcement of the result. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(1) the Court issues this opinion with its findings of fact and conclusions of law.[1]

         I. NATURE OF THE CASE AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This action was brought by Plaintiffs Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc.; Sivaporn Nimityongskul (“Mrs. Nimityongskul”); Varin Nimityongskul (“Mr. Nimityongskul”); Serena Nimityongskul; and Prasit Nimityongskul (collectively the “Plaintiffs”). Plaintiffs filed a seven (7) count Complaint against certain municipal defendants. By the time of trial, the City of Mobile (“Defendant” or the “City”) was the sole remaining Defendant. This matter arises out of Defendant's denial of certain land use applications to construct a meditation center on the site of an existing home that is located in an R-1 single-family residential zoning district. Following the Court's order on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (Doc. 127), the case proceeded to trial on three (3) claims: an as-applied nondiscrimination claim brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) (Count 2), an as-applied Equal Protection claim brought under the Fourteenth Amendment as enforced by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count 5), and an Alabama state law claim for negligent misrepresentation (Count 7).

         In resolving the triable issues, the Court has reviewed and considered the arguments that were presented, the testimony and exhibits that were admitted into evidence during the bench trial, and other portions of the Court's file where appropriate. In addition to the testimony and evidence presented at trial, the Court also made a visit to the 2410 Eloong Drive property, which is the subject of the land use applications and this lawsuit, accompanied by representatives for each of the parties. After full and fair consideration of all of the evidence, the arguments presented and the controlling legal precedent, and an appropriate assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, the Court finds in favor of Defendant on all of the three (3) claims. This memorandum opinion provides the basis for that determination.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         The Court finds the following facts were proven through the evidence that was presented at trial:

         1. The City is a municipality, which has a government. Chapter 64 of the City's Code of Ordinances (the “City's Zoning Ordinance”) contains certain land use regulations.

         2. Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, Inc. (the “Association”) was established in 2007 and was first located at a home that was located at 4567 Airport Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama (the “4567 Airport Boulevard residence”). The Association's Articles of Incorporation state, “[t]he corporation has been organized for the following purpose: Teaching and research into growth and development of mind and spirit through meditation and to expand the knowledge of Buddhism.” The property was zoned R-1 for single-family residential.

         3. In August 2007, the City received from a resident a complaint about a sign for the Association and its related activities that was posted at the 4567 Airport Boulevard residence. The City assigned an inspector to visit the 4567 Airport Boulevard residence. The inspector told Mrs. Nimityongskul the sign was not permitted and must be removed. The sign was accordingly removed. The inspector also issued a Notice of Violation, which is a warning of possible non-compliance with City zoning regulations and gave the property owner ten (10) days to either cease the violation or apply to the City for planning approval.

         4. On September 14, 2007, Mrs. Nimityongskul applied for planning approval to continue offering meditation classes three (3) times per week at the 4567 Airport Boulevard residence. The application received opposition from area residents who wanted the neighborhood to remain single-family residential without non-residential uses.

         5. On November 1, 2007, City staff issued a staff report for the application in which they recommended it be denied for several reasons, including that the proposed use of the site would require modifications, which may preclude its use as a single-family home and allow the possibility for future variance or rezoning requests. Mrs. Nimityongskul later withdrew her application for planning approval for the 4567 Airport Boulevard residence before the Mobile City Planning Commission (the “Planning Commission”) could consider and vote on it.

         6. In 2009, the Association moved to its current location, a shopping center at 3821 Airport Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama (the “3821 Airport Boulevard location”). The new location is the Meditation Center of Alabama (the “Center”). The 3821 Airport Boulevard location is owned by Nimit Two, LLC, a limited liability company, the members of which are the individual plaintiffs. The Association leased this property from Nimit Two, LLC, and continues to do so today. The Association has rarely paid any rent that it owes under its leases with Nimit Two, LLC.

         7. Since the Association relocated to the 3821 Airport Boulevard location in 2009 and opened under its new name, the City has neither sent a zoning inspector to the Center's location nor has the City taken any other action to interfere with the Center's meditation or other practices at that location.

         8. At the 3821 Airport Boulevard location, the Center holds meditation classes three (3) nights per week, one (1) day retreats that are held on Saturdays several times a year, and three (3) day retreats that are held on weekends a few times per year. The Center also periodically sponsors events such as lectures. The retreats, lectures, and other events sponsored by the Center are sometimes held at locations other than the 3821 Airport Boulevard location, such as the University of South Alabama, local libraries, and city parks.

         9. A predevelopment meeting was held on February 25, 2015, to discuss a property that was owned by the Association and is located at the intersection of Bear Fork Road and University Boulevard, Mobile, Alabama. City employees, Mrs. Nimityongskul, and her real estate agent, William Youngblood, attended the meeting. The subject property was zoned R-1 for single-family residential. One of the purposes of a predevelopment meeting is for the City to tell applicants the necessary steps to attempt to gain approval for a proposed use of property if a proposed use is permitted in the applicable zoning district. City staff also told Mrs. Nimityongskul, based on the information received from her and her representatives, of the City's various regulatory requirements that apply to the proposed project.

         10. Bert Hoffman, a planner for the City, and other city employees attended the February 25, 2015 predevelopment meeting. At the meeting, Hoffman said a meditation center that is religious in nature is allowed on property that is zoned R-1 with planning approval. Hoffman also said, if the meditation center had a different non-religious purpose, the meditation center would require something different than planning approval, such as a rezoning of the property.

         11. Mrs. Nimityongskul and Mr. Youngblood attended a second predevelopment meeting with City employees on April 24, 2015. At this meeting, they discussed a property located at 2410 Eloong Drive, Mobile, Alabama (the “Eloong Drive property”), which was zoned R-1 for single-family residential and was available for sale. At this predevelopment meeting, Mrs. Nimityongskul and Mr. Youngblood were told by City staff R-1 zoned property requires approval by the Planning Commission to construct a meditation center. At this meeting, City staff did not question the religious nature of the proposed meditation center facility.

         12. At the predevelopment meeting, City staff gave Mr. Youngblood various forms to complete and return to the City so they could be considered by the Planning Commission. The forms included applications for planning approval, subdivision approval, Planned Urban Development (“PUD”), and variance request for non-paved parking, which would be considered by the Board of Zoning Adjustment instead of the Planning Commission. Mr. Youngblood also received the respective meeting schedules for the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment.

         13. At the April 24, 2015 predevelopment meeting, Mr. Hoffman never said a meditation center would be allowed on property that was zoned R-1 without obtaining planning approval from the Planning Commission.

         14. The Eloong Drive property is an improved property with an approximately 5, 000 square foot five (5) bedroom single-family home, a detached garage with an apartment, a greenhouse, and a boat dock. The parcel is approximately 6.72 acres and zoned R-1 for single-family residential. The house at the Eloong Drive property would host meditation classes until the proposed meditation center buildings were built.

         15. The R-1 zoning district is the largest zoning district in the City and covers a wide variety of properties - developed and undeveloped, urban and rural, large and small, and newer and older parts of the City. The R-1 zoning district within the City has limited uses that are allowed as of right, aside from a single-family home.

         16. R-1 zoning districts are described in the City's Zoning Ordinance as follows:

R-1 districts: One-family residential districts. These districts are composed of both developed and largely undeveloped areas. The developed areas contain mainly one-family dwellings and small open areas, usually subdivided, where residential development seems likely to occur; few two-family and multiple-family dwellings are found in these developed areas. It is anticipated that most of the large undeveloped areas will ultimately be developed for residential use. The district regulations are designed to protect the residential character of the developed areas by prohibiting all commercial activities; to encourage a suitable neighborhood environment for family life by including among the permitted uses such facilities as schools and churches; and to preserve the openness of the areas by requiring certain minimum yard and area standards to be met. Reclassification of the land or other appropriate residential, commercial or industrial categories shall be in accordance with the amendment procedure set forth herein.

         17. Under the City's Zoning Ordinance, including its Chart of Permitted Uses, a “church or religious facility” is permitted in an R-1 zone with “planning approval, ” which is granted by the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission considers all planning approval applications under the following standard:

Uses in the chart identified by “P” in any column are permitted in that particular district upon approval of their location and site plan by the planning commission as being appropriate with regard to transportation and access, water supply, waste disposal, fire and police protection, and other public facilities; as not causing undue traffic congestion or creating a traffic hazard; and as being in harmony with the orderly and appropriate development of the district in which the use is located . . . .

         This standard is located at section 64-12(1)(b) of the City's Zoning Ordinance (“planning approval criteria”). The Planning Commission may impose conditions on a grant of planning approval.

         18. After the April 24, 2015 predevelopment meeting, Mr. Hoffman sent an email to Mrs. Nimityongskul that said her proposal to use the house at the Eloong Drive property as a meditation center would require the following: (1) planning approval for worship related use; (2) PUD because of a second habitable structure on the property; (3) subdivision; and (4) variance for non-paved parking and maneuvering.

         19. Steve Dagley, an engineer retained by Mrs. Nimityongskul, knew planning approval from the Planning Commission was required to put a church or religious facility on R-1 zoned property.

         20. Prior to the predevelopment meeting, Mrs. Nimityongskul began to exchange offers and counter-offers with the seller of the Eloong Drive property. In her signed Response to Counter-Offer dated April 16, 2015, Mrs. Nimityongskul listed, among other provisions, the following contingencies for the property's use: (1) Buyer must determine that it has the right to construct a separate meditation building on the property; (2) Buyer must determine that it has the right to construct two additional dwellings for guest house purposes, which were to be used by religious monks; (3) Buyer must receive approval from the fire department for this construction; (4) Buyer must be made aware of any parking requirements by the City, including whether such parking may be gravel or must be paved; and (5) Buyer will have until July 6th to be satisfied of these requirements and then be obligated to close. The document that contains these contingencies was drafted by Mrs. Nimityongskul's real estate agent, Mr. Youngblood, who discussed the document with her. After the discussion with Mr. Youngblood, Mrs. Nimityongskul signed the document.

         21. On June 2, 2015, approximately six (6) weeks after the predevelopment meeting for the Eloong Drive property, Mrs. Nimityongskul entered into a signed Purchase Agreement for the property. In a signed Addendum to the Purchase Agreement, Mrs. Nimityongskul retained the five (5) contingencies from her Response to Counter-Offer.

         22. This signed Purchase Agreement also gave Mrs. Nimityongskul, through a signed addendum, a right of first refusal for the purchase of the Eloong Drive property, which allowed the property to remain on the market. The right of first refusal expired on August 21, 2015. Mrs. Nimityongskul signed the right of first refusal addendum drafted by Mr. Youngblood after a brief discussion with him.

         23. On July 20, 2015, Mrs. Nimityongskul signed a document drafted by Mr. Youngblood that was titled “Removal of Contingencies.” Before Mrs. Nimityongskul signed the Removal of Contingencies, Mr. Youngblood and she discussed the document. Under the Removal of Contingencies, Mrs. Nimityongskul agreed to remove the contingencies to the sale. The subject applications were not filed with the City until September 11, 2015, nearly two (2) months after she signed the Removal of Contingencies.

         24. Mrs. Nimityongskul did not communicate with City employees during the period between the April 24, 2015 predevelopment meeting and the purchase date of the Eloong Drive property, August 20, 2015. Mrs. Nimityongskul paid $690, 000.00 for the Eloong Drive property. A deed was prepared and signed by the seller in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Nimityongskul, Serena Nimityongskul, and Varin Nimityongskul.

         25. The funds for the purchase of the property came from Mr. and Mrs. Nimityongskul. None of the money for the purchase of the property came from either Serena Nimityongskul, Varin Nimityongskul, or the Association.

         26. The sale of the Eloong Drive property to Mr. and Mrs. Nimityongskul, Serena Nimityongskul, and Varin Nimityongskul closed on August 20, 2015, approximately three (3) weeks prior to the filing of the subject applications with the City.

         27. On or about September 11, 2015, Mrs. Nimityongskul filed applications with the City for planning approval, a PUD, and subdivision approval (collectively the “meditation center applications”). The meditation center applications proposed building a meditation center at the Eloong Drive property. The proposed buildings and other infrastructure that were to be constructed on the property included a 2, 400 square foot standalone meditation center building, two (2) 1, 600 square foot cottages that would be used for “visiting religious clergy men, ” a 600 square foot ...


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