Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Twp.,
309 F.3d 120 (3rd Cir. 2002)
Prospective purchasers of an R-1 zoned property requested relief to convert a private residential facility--that had been used in the past as a convent and a monastery--into a public worship facility (a synagogue). The township denied relief, stating that the proposed use was not allowed by special exception under the ordinance and that the hardship requirement that is necessary to justify a variance did not exist in this case. Prospective purchasers appealed directly to the United States District Court arguing that the zoning ordinance that excluded worship facilities from R-1 zones violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution as well as other state and federal laws. The District Court agreed and remanded the case to the zoning hearing board to consider approving the use as a special exception. The township appealed to the Third Circuit, which reversed the lower court on multiple grounds.
The Third Circuit found that the lower court erred by applying the Cleburne equal protection analysis without making the threshold determination of whether the excluded uses (public worship facilities) were "similarly situated" or "similar in kind" to those uses allowed by special exception in the R-1 zone (such as country clubs). As a result, the Third Circuit remanded the case to the lower court to determine whether public worship facilities were similarly situated to uses allowed by right or by special exception in the R-1 zone. In addition, the Third Circuit found that the lower court abused its discretion by requiring the zoning hearing board to hold a special exception hearing when the ordinance did not provide for such uses by special exception.
The Court noted that ordinarily local government land use decisions are given great deference by the federal courts.
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