United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
THAI MEDITATION ASSOCIATION OF ALABAMA, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
CITY OF MOBILE, ALABAMA, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
F. MOORER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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
NATURE OF THE CASE AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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).
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.
FINDINGS OF FACT
Court finds the following facts were proven through the
evidence that was presented at trial:
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ...