Glenside Center, Inc. v. Abington Township Zoning Hearing Board, No. 886 C.D. 2008, 2009 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 104 (Pa. Commw. March 17, 2009).
Use of property for alcoholics anonymous meetings did not constitute office use under zoning ordinance, and Zoning Hearing Board’s exclusion of such use was not a violation of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Glenside Center, Inc. leased property in the Township’s Special Commercial District (SC) which allows for office use. The purpose of the lease was to conduct meetings for alcoholics anonymous, narcotics anonymous and debtors anonymous. Glenside was notified by the Township that its use constituted professional services under the Zoning Ordinance, not office use, and was not permitted in the SC District. Glenside appealed, arguing that its use constituted office use, the Township was improperly regulating land use by imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise in direct contravention of the Federal statute. The Zoning Hearing Board rejected all of Glenside’s arguments after conducting hearings and accepting evidence, and the Trial Court affirmed the decision of the Zoning Hearing Board prohibiting the use.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court considered both of Glenside’s arguments. First, the Court determined that the Board and Trial Court properly determined that there was no evidence to support Glenside’s assertion that its use constituted office use, as there was no testimony of any use other than conducting AA, NA and DA meetings, thus there was no evidence that the space was “primarily” utilized as an office. The evidence supported the finding that Glenside was engaged in a community center use properly excluded from the SC District by the Ordinance.
Further, the Court rejected Glenside’s argument that it is protected under the Religious Land use and Institutionalized Persons Act which prohibits government from regulating land use in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise. Specifically, the Court determined that there is no authority whatsoever for Glenside’s proposition that an AA meeting is a religious exercise within the meaning of the statute, and there was no evidence of religious involvement or purpose in the group’s materials or practices. Because the purpose of the meetings was to treat addiction, not exercise religion – no matter what the religion was – the Trial Court did not err in determining Glenside was not using the property for religious purposes.
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