Judge axes Grace Church suit
Pitkin County correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” A judge on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit aimed at undoing the Grace Church settlement with Pitkin County, in which the county agreed to permit construction of the church in Emma in exchange for the church withdrawing a federal lawsuit against the county.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Denise K. Lynch essentially ruled that it would be impossible to find in favor of the Emma Caucus, which filed a lawsuit in January that accused the county of not following its own land-use codes in reaching a settlement with Grace Church. The caucus had opposed the church’s plans to build on vacant land in Emma, a short distance from Highway 82.
The county’s settlement was based on a federal judge’s indications earlier this year that he believed federal law was breached when the county initially rejected Grace Church’s 2004 proposal to build a church and a caretaker house in Emma.
The county concluded in 2005 that the church would be out of character with the neighborhood, but after the church filed a federal lawsuit, the county had a change of heart and, in January 2008, agreed to the settlement.
As part of that agreement, the county agreed to pay $674,000 to the church, a sum that includes attorney’s fees incurred by the church as well as $350,000 to be paid to the church in return for an agreement to limit the church buildings to 15,000 square feet.
The settlement, Lynch ruled, “was an appropriate and necessary remedy for an acknowledged violation of federal law” and, as such, “because the sole basis of the plaintiff’s claims is that the county violated its land-use code in granting the church’s application, dismissal of the complaint is warranted.”
The county was correct in reaching the settlement, the judge found, because federal law permits such agreements in cases where an individual’s or institution’s religious freedoms have been violated through government actions.
In reversing its denial of the Grace Church building plans, according to Lynch’s ruling, the county was acting appropriately “in order to preserve the constitutional rights of all citizens and to adhere as closely as possible to the tenets of the county code and its adopted master plans.”
The ruling was filed electronically at Pitkin County District Court shortly after noon Tuesday.