A Sauk City church is suing the village in federal court for denying a zoning change that would have allowed its relocation to an industrial park.
The lawsuit filed by the River Hills Community Church claims the village infringed on the congregation’s liberties by restricting its right to worship at the former Community Business Bank building on Sycamore Street.
The nondenominational church, which has about 100 members, has been operating out of the River Arts Center at Sauk Prairie High School for the last five years while trying to acquire a permanent home.
Sauk City’s zoning code requires churches to get a conditional use permit in order to locate within village limits. Churches must be on a minimum of two acres of land located in a residential area.
“Such an onerous restriction reminds one more of a Middle Eastern dictatorship or Chinese state control rather than a free America,” said John Mauck, a Chicago attorney who is representing the church. “If people want to form a congregation, buy a building, and comply with every building fire, health and safety code why should a city say ‘you cannot locate in our town without our say so?’”
In December, the church asked the village to change its zoning requirements for commercial areas so that it could move into the bank building, which is located in an industrial park. Village officials took no action on the request.
When reached by phone, Village President Jim Anderson declined to comment on the lawsuit. Last month, Anderson said village trustees denied the zoning change because they did not think a business park was suitable for a church. He said there was plenty of property available in other areas of the village.
Anderson also said the bank building is located in a special type of taxing district used to encourage redevelopment. Because churches are tax exempt, River Hills’ relocation to that building would take tax revenue from what has been promised to other government entities, he said.
Church officials have argued the village also would take a large property tax loss if the congregation were to locate in a residential area.
Mauck pointed out that for three years, the church rented property on Community Drive that is located within a business park, and village officials did not seem to mind.
Friday morning, U.S. District Judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin issued an order that allowed the church to purchase the former bank property prior to an afternoon deadline. Congregation members pulled together the funds necessary to purchase the property Friday.
The judge’s order restricted the village from using its zoning code to prohibit the purchase until the case has concluded. If the village prevails in the lawsuit, the congregation would have to stop using the former bank building as a church.
“We watched God turn what many considered a dead issue into new life,” said River Hills Community Church Pastor Denis Virta. “We are so excited to have this opportunity to minister to our community and thank our members and our attorneys for their support.”