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Cypress, Church Near Deal in Battle Over Land

Development: Cottonwood will sell property to the city for a Costco store. The Christian center will get about 28 acres on a nearby golf course.

October 05, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cypress officials announced Friday they have reached a tentative settlement with Cottonwood Christian Center, apparently averting a legal showdown over religious freedom and a city's right to dictate development.

Although details are not final, both parties said they agree on several key issues: Each side will drop pending lawsuits; Cottonwood will sell its land to the city, which plans to bring in a Costco discount store; and the church will acquire about 28 acres on the nearby Cypress Golf Course.

"Cottonwood and the city now are committed to doing everything possible to work with each other--not against each other--with a mutual goal in mind," said David Belmer, the city's community development director.

The agreement should end two years of rhetoric and legal machinations that drew nationwide media attention and divided land use experts and religious institutions. When the dispute hit the courts, it became a test case for a federal law passed in 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which exempts churches from most local zoning regulations.

Church officials said they are cautiously hopeful the fight is over, but won't be satisfied until the deal is signed.

"We have a tentative agreement on the principal points and talks are going well," said the Rev. Mike Wilson, Cottonwood's project manager. "It's been a long road. We don't want to say it's done until it's done."

The city has contended that Cottonwood, a 4,000-member church, bought 18 acres at a busy intersection at Walker Street and Katella Avenue even though it was in a redevelopment zone intended for a large retail center.

Church officials have said they were never warned about the city's plans.

The city rejected the church's proposal to build, then condemned the property so it could sell the land to Costco or a similar, tax revenue-generating "big box" store.

The church asked for a temporary injunction to block eminent domain proceedings, which was granted by a federal judge in August. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued an opinion in favor of Cottonwood, mincing no words in his criticism of the city."Even if [the city] had compelling reasons to burden Cottonwood's religious exercise, they must do so in the least restrictive means," he wrote.

"Far from doing that, the city has done the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill an ant."

Although the city downplayed the decision, it may have prompted officials to reach a settlement, particularly since Carter would have presided over the case.

Under the proposed settlement, the church will lease about 28 acres of the Cypress Golf Course, with an option to buy when the city grants building entitlements and the sale of the existing property is complete.

"I'm pleased that we've finally come up with something that's a win-win," Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan said.

"The city gets its original piece of property. It's a key anchor in our city for future potential development. And the church gets a piece of property that's actually more appropriate and will save them more money in the long run."

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