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Church Finds Broad Support in Battle With Cypress Over Land

Religion: Clergy across nation rally behind Christian group whose land city voted to take.

May 30, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cypress' decision to take land from Cottonwood Christian Center for a Costco or other "big-box" retailer mobilized religious activists across the nation who vowed Wednesday to back the church's fight to keep its property.

The Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty issued a written statement describing the city's move late Tuesday night to take the church's 18 acres by eminent domain as a "stunningly unethical ... abuse of governmental power."

Church leaders labeled the action an affront to the Constitution and an abuse of redevelopment law. But city officials defended their move, saying the city depends on sales tax revenue such a retail development would generate.

"I speak on behalf of many pastors in saying we will not allow this to continue," said Jim Cobrae, pastor of the 10,000-member Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino. "There are millions of dollars that will go toward Cottonwood's aggressive fight from churches, synagogues and mosques that could be subjected to the same abuse."

"This is a worldwide effort," he said after the contentious, four-hour hearing over the site where Cottonwood wants to build a "megachurch" campus with an arena-sized auditorium, gymnasium, day-care center, classrooms and other facilities.

An Oklahoma firm recently sent 50,000 glossy mailers lambasting Cypress officials, and legal organizations in Washington, D.C., and Colorado are drafting motions on behalf of the church. A state legislator sent the City Council a letter just before the vote telling them they should be ashamed of themselves.

Despite it all, city officials remain defiant. "Our legal staff is just as confident, if not more confident than the attorneys for Cottonwood, that the law is on our side," City Councilman Frank McCoy said Wednesday.

Another council member also blasted Cottonwood officials before the 11:10 p.m. Tuesday vote for their "malicious" international propaganda campaign.

"Everybody says 'Gosh, how can you stand up against a church?'" Councilman Tim Keenan said. "You need to look at this as a land-use issue and take the church out of it. Everyone needs to follow the rules. I don't see why a church needs special treatment."

The rules Keenan and other city officials say they are following are those guiding redevelopment. The city plans to fold the church-owned property at Walker Street and Katella Avenue into a 300-acre shopping and entertainment district to stimulate the local economy.

"We have to look out for what our goals are for the entire community," Keenan said just before approving the condemnation.

Legal experts say they know of no other case in the country where a city successfully seized church property unless it was for a public use or right of way.

The city also has another hurdle: the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits land-use decisions that pose a "substantial burden" on the practice of religion.

But city officials say they will prevail because they notified the 4,000-member church before it bought the land that this could happen--something church officials deny.

They added that redevelopment remains one of the only viable options they have to raise revenue since the state slashed $2 million in annual funding to Cypress in the mid-1990s and never restored it.

A Costco alone can generate as much as $900,000 in sales tax revenue annually, according to city projections.

Given the cuts in state funding, officials of the city of about 50,000 were incensed at a scolding letter from Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) received just before the Cottonwood vote, accusing Cypress officials of "outrageous" behavior.

"He is just part of the problem," McCoy said. "He should be working on solutions that would make cities less dependent on sales tax."

Maddox dismissed the remarks as frustration from a group of officials who have backed themselves against a wall. He has enlisted the support of several other state lawmakers on Cottonwood's behalf, but conceded there is little the Legislature can do to block the city's action. Amending redevelopment law, he said, is like "trying to herd cats."

However, Maddox said no judge could find the paved lot where Cottonwood has filed plans to build its campus a blighted area, as required by redevelopment law. "This is just plain wrong," Maddox said. "If the church doesn't want to sell, so be it. This is their land."

Cottonwood's attorneys said Wednesday they will seek an injunction this week to stop the city from going any further before a judge rules on their lawsuit.

"The length to which this city is willing to trample on constitutional rights is extraordinary," said Pat Korten, vice president of the Becket group, which is providing legal assistance to Cottonwood. "It has implications for churches all over the country. They are realizing that if this can happen to Cottonwood, it can happen to anyone."

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