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Cypress Asks Federal Court to Stay Out of Dispute Over Costco

Land use: The city wants the issue decided under California law. The Cottonwood Christian Center has asked for intervention.

July 23, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a lawsuit to end the lawsuit in the dispute between Cypress and the Cottonwood Christian Center. The question is whether the city can turn the church's land into a Costco.

Cypress has asked a federal court to keep out of the fight--despite a church request for intervention--and let the Orange County Superior Court decide.

The city is trying to use eminent domain to take the land where Cottonwood wants to build a mega-church. The city already is negotiating to sell Costco the 18 acres.

Church attorneys say the city's attempt to take the property is an unconstitutional government seizure and a violation of a recent federal law that exempts churches from most local land use rules.

The battle has gained national attention and is viewed as a test case of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

City officials defend their move as a routine use of state redevelopment law. They say the state court should decide whether building a commercial center is a legitimate public use that justifies taking the church's land. The city estimates it would receive $900,000 annually in sales taxes from a Costco.

"We are saying that this land was last used for a swap meet and has no intrinsic religious value," said William Wynder, Cypress city attorney.

Cottonwood bought the land at Walker Street and Katella Avenue in 1999 to build a church that could hold its 4,000 members and would include a gym, a 300,000-square-foot auditorium, a day care center and classrooms.

Church and city officials disagree over whether Cottonwood was warned the city wanted a commercial center there when it bought the property.

"I'm at a loss to understand the city's apparent fear over a federal court deciding this case," said Sean O'Connor, an attorney for Cottonwood. "It's one thing for the city to violate the U.S. Constitution. It's another for them to violate [the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act]," he said. "They violated both in one swoop. We think that will get the court's attention."

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