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Circle of Teran to appeal rejection of its church status

Describing his clients as depressed but determined, Ashland attorney Chris Hearn said the "Circle of Teran" will likely appeal the county's rejection of its application to be considered a church able to operate closer to Ashland's urban growth boundary than allowed by state law.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners last week voted 3-0 against the proposal by Dr. Scott Young, an Ashland cosmetic surgeon, and his wife, Sulara. The findings will be formalized by the board April 30, after which the Youngs may take their case to the state Court of Appeals, using a new federal law designed to prevent obstacles to religious freedom caused by land use laws, said Hearn.

Commissioners, using the counsel of Portland attorney Greg Hathaway, said the Youngs had used only religious inspiration for the siting of their proposed New Age church and had not met the burden of proof required by state law for an exception to the rule that churches can't be closer than three miles to a city's urban growth boundary.

Board members said the Youngs, by not adequately evaluating other sites for their church, gave them nothing to work with in trying to decide if they should get an exception to the three-mile rule.

Faced with the admittedly difficult issue of whether the organization would suffer a "substantial burden" on their religious practices if not given an exception to the three-mile rule, all three commissioners said they had to go with the compelling interest in protecting the three-mile margins around urban growth boundaries.

"Within three miles (of cities) is every bit of good farmland in the county," said Commissioner Dave Gilmour, "and the consequences, long-term, of giving an exception could be catastrophic. We'd shut down all agriculture within 20 or 50 years."

Commissioner C.W. Smith said the issue, which has run six years now, was made much more difficult by the fact that the Youngs built their 11,000-square-foot home before applying for church status and exceptions to land-use laws.

"The pressing issue is that when Jackson County makes land-use decisions, we've been thumped by LUBA (Land Use Board of Appeals)," Smith said. "It takes a tremendous amount of money to go through this. If there's a 'substantial burden,' it may well be because the development is already done. To break stride and go out on our own, that would be challenged. LUBA does not look kindly on that."

Hearn said his clients thought their chances would be good because they did a traffic study and development plan as required by the county Planning Commission, but they're "upset and depressed" that the outcome didn't change since the rejection by that body.

"They shot us down on basically everything and their criticism was based on religious use," Hearn said. "That's hard to address "¦ they wanted alternative sites analysis but the structure was built on divine guidance."

The Youngs thought their site, 2.2 miles from Ashland's urban growth boundary in a straight line, might be excepted from the three-mile requirement because it's buffered by an interstate freeway and sits at a higher elevation.

Commissioners said the Youngs didn't show flexibility in identifying alternative sites for their church on their 96-acre parcel, but rather insisted there was only one possible "power spot" for it. Advising the board, Hathaway said applicants should show the boundaries of such a "power zone."

If they appeal the ruling, the applicants, as a religious organization, will be able to use the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which was supported by both political parties and, through lawsuits, has enlarged the rights of religious freedom in land-use cases, said Hearn.

"We have the option now of proceeding with a federal case because of the arbitrary nature of the three-mile rule," Hearn said. "The question is, does the land-use rule substantially burden the claimants' exercise of religious freedom? We claim it does."

Under the new federal law, he added, it's up to the county not to use the narrowest interpretation of the land-use law, but to find other means that can serve the compelling government interest.

"My clients are determined because this is their life's work, vision and purpose," Hearn said. "It's very important to them but they are periodically exhausted. It's been an extreme battle in terms of time, money and their emotional investment."

Hearn said RLUIPA allows winning plaintiffs to recover legal fees, but not governments.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.