It has been a whirlwind week for leaders of Sauk City’s River Hills Church.
Only three days after filing a complaint against the Village of Sauk City, a federal court judge issued a temporary order Jan. 31 allowing the River Hills Church to assemble in a vacant building on Sycamore Street.
Church members purchased the building, the former Community Business Bank, that afternoon and celebrated with their first service at the new location Feb. 2.
In late December, the Sauk City Village Board took no action on a request from the church to rezone property in an industrial park to allow the congregation to move its church into the former bank building.
Current village zoning regulations allow for churches only in residential areas via a conditional use permit that requires at least a two-acre parcel for a church.
Attorneys for the church, John Mauck and Noel Sterett of Chicago, filed the complaint alleging 12 causes of action including violation of the church’s civil rights Jan. 28.
U.S. District Court Judge William Conley signed an order Jan. 31 stating the village could not enforce its zoning code to “inhibit religious assembly.”
The following morning, River Hills pastor Dennis Virta and other church members were moving things into the building, and on Feb. 2, a large meeting room was filled with about 70 worshipers, the church band, coffee and pastries.
While the church has a place to gather, the legal matter remains unresolved. Conley issued a temporary order allowing the church to use the property until the case is settled, or until the village and church reach some other agreement outside of court.
Conley’s order was signed Jan. 31, and Virta closed on the purchase of the building that afternoon, after pulling together funds from private loans of church members.
When the village did not approve the use of the building for a church, the bank the church was using canceled its financing, and the deal to purchase fell through.
“Without the financing, we went to our own people and explained the situation,” Virta said. “Within 30 hours, we raised the money to purchase with short-term loan commitments. Maybe that was God’s way of telling us, ‘Don’t depend on this person, and see if we can finance internally.’”
He said the private loans were provided with no interest, though he said the church may continue to seek out another local bank for financing.
Sauk City village attorney Meg Vergeront of Stafford Rosenbaum in Madison said the village may seek to negotiate some type of agreement in the case.
“The village hasn’t done anything wrong, but we have to go through the process of the litigation,” Vergeront said. “The village has done its job and has done their ordinances right. These are just allegations. Nothing has been proven. We’re at the beginning of this case. I think people understand that.”
Vergeront said the village has 21 days to provide the court with its response to the allegations.
The new location would be the first permanent location for the River Hills Church. Over the last six years, the group met at Devil’s Lake State Park, church members’ backyards, rented office space — including an office on Community Drive across the street from its new location — and more recently has rented the River Arts Center.
Virta said the lawsuit was about the church members’ freedom of worship.
“We’re not money grubbing with a hand out,” Virta said. “This is just to have a place to worship and call our home.”
However, the complaint asks the court for monetary damages based on the church’s loss of financing, legal costs and pain and suffering.
Among the allegations of the violation of basic civil rights of the U. S. Constitution and the Wisconsin State Constitution providing for religious freedom, is the right to assemble, free speech, 14th Amendment rights of equal protection and the violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 that protects churches and other religious institutions from burdensome zoning restrictions on their property use.
The complaint states that village zoning ordinances, in effect, don’t allow for a church to be sited anywhere because even in a residential district where churches are allowed, the ordinances require approval of a conditional use permit.
Zoning does allow for places like community centers.
At the time the village board took no action, village trustees raised concerns that the church wanted to locate in a tax incremental finance district in which local taxing entities went without their share of increased property taxes based on development in that area.
Churches are exempt from paying property taxes.
“We made an agreement the taxing entities would get their portion of the taxes in new development,” Village president Jim Anderson said following the board’s inaction on the church’s rezone petition. “By turning that into a church, it would take away taxes that were promised to them.”
But the complaint states that, based on the village’s zoning codes, other tax-exempt organizations could obtain a conditional use permit for the property.
“We think the courts have said when churches or a tax-exempt organization get a special privilege from the state that a unit of the state like a village can’t turn around and use that as a reason to keep them from using a property,” Mauck said.
Sterett said the village has been cooperative and said he was optimistic an agreement could be reached to allow the church to occupy the property permanently.
“The judge encouraged both sides to resolve this and called it ‘imminently resolvable,’” Sterett said. “He thinks we should be able to work this out.”
“Sometimes justice is very slow,” Mauck said, “but in this case, thanks to the judge and the cooperativeness of the village, there was justice.”