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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 11, 2004

Maui church prevails in battle over land use

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — A Maui church concluded its settlement with Maui County yesterday, collecting a check for $700,000 along with a permit allowing members to gather on their Pukalani property for worship.

That marks the end of a decade-long battle between Hale O Kaula Church and the county.

Last month the Maui Planning Commission voted to grant the church a special-use permit, following previous denials, a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice and two other lawsuits in state and federal court.

Having held worship services in a small Ha'iku chapel since 1960, Hale O Kaula decided to expand and bought six acres of agricultural land on Maui in 1991. The property allows it to pursue its "Joseph Ministry" — a religious ministry drawn from the Old Testament of the Bible and involving agricultural activity.

But the Planning Commission twice denied a special-use permit that would have allowed construction of a sanctuary, fellowship hall and use of the land. The commission instead agreed with neighbors who claimed that the church would lead to increased traffic and noise, added burden to county services and a deterioration of the rural atmosphere.

The church challenged the permit denial under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that forbids local governments to discriminate against or needlessly burden religious institutions through zoning law. The suit became a national test case, with organizations across the country lining up on both sides of the issue.

"Frankly, this case should be a lesson for local governments nationwide," said Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative-backed Washington public-interest law firm that represented the church.

Picarello said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act "has teeth and will bite when provoked." Local governments should re-examine their land-use policies before litigation follows, he said.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Madelyn D'Enbeau, who oversaw the county's case, said the county's insurance company paid for the settlement. No money will be paid from county coffers.

D'Enbeau said the county's defense of the case was about protecting the right of the commission to make a decision based on the evidence as well as its right to impose protective conditions as it deems necessary.

"Unless we vigorously defend the commission's decisions, the commission ends up being bullied and brow beaten instead of rendering reasoned, evidence-based decisions," Mayor Alan Arakawa said in a statement. "This case was important because otherwise every disappointed applicant could look at a denial as a federal case. It just isn't."

County officials said that, in the end, the church responded to concerns regarding fire protection, potable water availability and traffic mitigation. It also agreed to indemnify neighbors against liability arising from the church's use of a private road and to abide by restrictions on the duration and size of church activities, officials said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.