MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION TO DISMISS
Plaintiffs Reverge Anselmo and Seven Hills Land and Cattle Company, LLC ("Seven Hills") have brought this action against the County of Shasta, California ("Shasta County") and Russ Mull alleging claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights arising out of Anselmo's desire to construct a private chapel on land located in Shasta County. Defendant Mull has brought a motion to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Docket No. 7.)
I. Factual and Procedural Background
According to the Complaint, defendant Mull is the Director of the Department of Resource Management for Shasta County, and in that position he oversees the county departments of building, planning, environmental health, air quality, and community education. (Compl. ¶ 6.) Plaintiffs further claim that "the activities and conduct [alleged in the Complaint] of all COUNTY personnel . . . were carried out either directly by defendant MULL or by subordinate personnel acting at the instance, direction, knowledge and supervision of MULL, to execute and implement decisions made by MULL." (Id.)
Plaintiffs allege that in 2005, Anselmo purchased property consisting of ranch and farm land in Shasta County, where he currently lives. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 14.) He is also the sole owner of Seven Hills, through which he owns and operates a ranch and winery on this property. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 4.) The Complaint does not allege that Seven Hills is a religious organization. Two relevant laws limiting land use apply to the portion of the purchased property at issue here.
First, plaintiffs allege that under Shasta County zoning regulations, the portion of property at issue is located in an Exclusive Agriculture ("EA") zone, the purpose of which is to preserve lands with agricultural value and identify lands that may be suitable for utilizing provisions of county code relating to agricultural preserves. (Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiffs represent that while some uses such as single-family dwellings, nurseries, or small wineries are permitted outright in EA zones, other uses require permits. Shasta County Code § 17.06.020. Uses allowed with the proper permit include senior citizen residences, bed and breakfast facilities, farm labor quarters, fowl farms, and medium wineries. Id. §§ 17.06.025-.040. The county code additionally provides that permits may be issued for "uses found similar in character and impact" to uses explicitly permitted with or without a permit. Id. § 17.060.050(b)).
Second, plaintiffs allege that Anselmo's land is located in an Agricultural Preserve ("AP") zone. (Id. ¶ 16.) According to plaintiffs, the AP zone identifies those lands that Shasta County is willing to make subject to a Williamson Act contract as part of a state program promoting long-term preservation of agricultural land. (Id.) Under the Williamson Act, cities and counties may enter into contracts with land owners of qualified property to retain the agricultural, recreational, or open-space use of land of the land in exchange for lower property tax assessments. See Cal. Gov't Code § 51200 et seq.
The portion of land at issue here is subject to a Williamson Act contract that was entered into by the county and Seven Hills. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 18.) The contract provides that all uses allowed in an EA zone are permitted on the parcel and provides that "[a]additional compatible uses may be added or deleted . . . upon mutual agreement of the parties." (Id. ¶ 18.) A "compatible use" for purposes of the Williamson Act, in turn, is defined by state law as "any use determined by the county or city administering the preserve . . . by this act to be compatible with the agricultural, recreational, or open-space use of land within the preserve and subject to contract." Cal. Gov't Code § 51201(e).
Plaintiffs contend that on February 8, 2007, the Shasta County Planning Commission voted to grant Anselmo a use permit for the property at issue here. (Id. ¶ 22.) The permit provided that Anselmo could use the property for "[a]ll uses permitted in the EA district as permitted uses, but not limited to the two existing residences, farm laborer quarters and various agricultural buildings and uses currently on the project site," guided horseback tours, and a small winery with "production capacity up to 5,000 cases per year, with related accessory structures, production facilities, retail & wholesale sales areas, administrative offices, on-site 'tasting room,' food service, storage, etc." (Id.)
In May 2008, plaintiffs allege that Anselmo applied to have the use permit amended to allow for a "medium winery." (Id. ¶ 25.) The Shasta County Planning Commission approved the application and issued a new use permit that allowed plaintiff to operate a medium winery that produced up to 25,000 cases per year and to host special events including weddings, anniversaries, graduation functions, family reunions, and "other uses similar in character and intensity." (Id. ¶¶ 25-27.) These special events could only take place three times a month and were limited to 120 people, unless additional permission was granted by the Environmental Health Division. (Id. ¶ 27.)
According to plaintiffs, Anselmo is a devout Roman Catholic and the ability to build and use a chapel on his land is "central to his ability to worship his religion in accordance with his core beliefs and the depth of his faith." (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8, 29.) The Complaint explains that although there are Catholic churches located nearer to his ranch, the nearest place of worship that "coincides with [his] religious training and background is the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California," which is located approximately one-and-one-half hours by car away from his property. (Id. ¶ 29.) This distance allegedly frustrates Anselmo's "desire to worship almost daily, whether by formal Mass, confession or prayer." (Id.)
Anselmo further represents that it is his belief that "he should dedicate this tiny portion of his property to his faith and his God," and that "in the context of his beliefs" the construction of a chapel on his property is "an act essential as a demonstration of his faith." (Id. ¶ 31.) He intends to make this chapel available to laborers at his ranch as well as to visiting priests, and expects that enough priests would be interested in coming to the chapel "for retreat" that a priest would almost always be in attendance. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 32.) Once completed, the chapel will have seating capacity for 32 people and a maximum capacity of 42 people. (Id. ¶ 44.)
Before beginning construction on the chapel, on December 6, 2010, Anselmo's contractor submitted an application for a building permit to Shasta County. (Id. ¶ 33.) The permit sought permission to build a private chapel on 435 acres of plaintiff's land. (Id.) After an initial review of the application, the County Department of Resource Management requested the submission of additional information, but "gave no indication that the COUNTY would raise insurmountable obstacles to the issuance of the permit." (Id.)
The building permit application, BP 10-1798, had a maximum duration of one year. (Id.) Shortly after applying for the construction permit, plaintiffs began construction of the private chapel. Plaintiffs allege that Shasta County has a practice of issuing "as built" permits for construction that is already underway or completed if it determines that the construction and application are compliant. (Id. ¶ 35.) They further allege that at no time during the pendency of BP 10-1798 did defendants advise plaintiffs that they would never issue a permit, reject the application, or cite plaintiffs for construction performed without a permit. (Id.)
During the period that the construction permit was valid, plaintiffs contend that defendants made the following individualized assessments regarding plaintiffs' proposed construction of a private chapel. (Id. ¶ 36.) First, plaintiffs allege that defendants determined, without a hearing, that the private chapel would be incompatible with and in violation of the Williamson Act contract on the property. (Id. ¶ 36(A).) Second, plaintiffs allege that defendants determined that the private chapel would violate both EA and AP zoning regulations and that the violation could only be remedied by re-zoning the property. (Id. ¶ 36(B).) Third, plaintiffs allege that defendants determined that the private chapel would be a "commercial use," "public building," or "public accommodation" subject to certain requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
(Id. ¶ 36(C).) Fourth, plaintiffs allege that defendants engaged in "dragnet enforcement" when they determined that there were county code violations elsewhere on the property that prohibited further construction under Shasta County Code section 16.04.160.C.2. (Id. ¶ 36(D).)
Plaintiffs additionally allege that these determinations were made in a concerted effort to retaliate against plaintiffs for an unrelated dispute concerning a separate portion of plaintiffs' property. (Id. ¶ 36(E).) They do not allege that this animus was related to Anselmo's religious beliefs.
In March 2011, Anselmo claims that, although he believed that the chapel was in fact a permissible use in an EA or AP zone, he applied to have the property on which he had begun construction of his chapel re-zoned as Commercial Recreation ("CR"). (Id. ¶ 37.) Although this application remains open, plaintiffs allege that, because defendants continue to assert that the chapel is inconsistent with the Williamson Act contract, that certain ADA requirements must be met, that other code violations bar construction of the chapel, and because of an "undercurrent of retaliation" against Anselmo, the rezone application "cannot move forward in a manner that provides plaintiffs relief." (Id.)
On December 6, 2011, BP 10-1798 expired. (Id. ¶ 40.) Plaintiffs do not allege that BP 10-1798 was denied or that they submitted a second application after BP 10-1798 expired.
One month later, plaintiffs allege that they received a written notice of non-compliance with the Shasta County Code and Williamson Act. (Id. ¶ 41.) Specifically, the notice warned that the chapel violated EA and AP zoning regulations, the Williamson Act contract, and was being improperly built without a construction permit. (Id.) Several days later, a Shasta County code enforcement officer delivered to plaintiffs a warning notice that cited Anselmo for constructing the chapel without a required permit and demanded that all work on the chapel stop immediately. (Id. ¶ 42, Ex. C.)*fn1 That same day, the code enforcement officer also placed a "red tag" stop order on the chapel door. (Id. ¶ 43, Ex. D.)*fn2
Plaintiffs filed suit on February 13, 2012, asserting claims under RLUIPA*fn3 and under § 1983 for violations of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to free exercise and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process. (Docket No. 1.) Plaintiffs request monetary and injunctive relief, including punitive damages as against defendant Mull. (Id.)
To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead "only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). This "plausibility standard," however, "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), and "[w]here a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). In deciding whether a plaintiff has stated a claim, the court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972).*fn1
In relevant part, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . , subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured ...