Cypress invokes eminent domain to seize church land - Cottonwood center will seek an injunction to stop the forced $14.6 million sale meant to make way for a Costco plaza.

May 29, 2002

The Orange County Register

CYPRESS, CA Cypress on Tuesday became the first Orange County city to use eminent domain to seize church property to make way for a shopping center, disappointing religious-rights advocates and 500 church supporters who packed City Hall.

Leaders of Cottonwood Christian Center say they will seek an injunction in federal court today to prevent the Cypress Redevelopment Agency from forcing the church to sell its 18 acres at Walker Street and Katella Avenue for $14.6 million.

The City Council, acting as the agency board, voted 4-0 late Tuesday to forcibly buy the land for a Costco-based retail center.

"We're disappointed, but we plan to keep fighting because (the decision is) morally wrong," Cottonwood Senior Pastor Bayless Conley said.

"It's the purest form of discrimination," Cottonwood attorney Jon Curtis said.

Councilwoman Anna Peircy defended the board's vote.

"Sometimes you have to make some difficult decisions and you have to get down to the bottom line," she said. "We've never denied that it's a great church. The problem is a land-use issue."

Church attorneys, church leaders and religious-rights advocates were given an hour to express their viewpoints before the council voted.

About 30 residents supporting the retail center rallied outside City Hall, braving more than 500 Cottonwood church members who cheered, jeered and waved signs reading "Jesus or Hell" and "Thou Shall Not Covet God's Property."

Religion advocates across the country say the use of eminent domain would be the most aggressive act against a church since a federal law more than a year ago sought to protect religious institutions from discrimination by land-hungry cities.

"I think it's captured everyone's attention because it goes back to why this country was founded - freedom of religion and separation of church and state," Curtis said. "If a city will condemn and take a church's property, what's next? It essentially means nothing is safe."

In January, Cottonwood sued to force the city to permit construction of a $50 million worship center on a corner lot the church bought in 1999 for $14million.

In its suit, Cottonwood invoked the constitutional right to freedom of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a law that restricts cities from limiting church development in favor of the tax dollars churches don't provide.

But Cypress residents say their quality of life is at stake. And they mirror the views of some city officials: What about residents' rights to new jobs, quality services and convenient shopping?

"There is no comparison between the benefits of a Costco and the cost of a church," said Pete Kinnahan, a Cypress resident since 1981.

Kinnahan, who gathered about 600 petition signatures in support of the retail center, said Cottonwood is using its numbers to trample the needs of the community.

"My neighbors and I have been watching this go on for two years, and we're tired of this big church trying to bully the city by busing its members in from all around the county to harass our City Council," he said.

"Given the behavior of the church, we're not seeing its spiritual value. I'm not sure we want them in town."

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