Does church-related school require a conditional use permit

Visitor Question: Our church is currently zoned institutional and has been operating for over 50 years. We would like to add a small private school but have been given conflicting information about whether we are required to do a conditional use permit to incorporate a school.

It has been our understanding that churches are allowed to educate their members as a part of their mission and that "services" worship or educational would not be limited to specific times of day/week. Are there any statutes or information you could share to clarify this issue.

Editors Reply: If your church is located in a village, town, or city with a zoning ordinance, you would need to consult the specifics of the zoning ordinance to obtain the best guidance about your question. We assume that this is the case, since you know that your church has "institutional" zoning.

Now a large percentage of municipalities have posted their online zoning ordinance online for all to see. If this is true where you live, you could and should read for yourself the district requirements for institutional zoning. Then you also should read the definitions section for anything pertaining to your question. For example, many zoning ordinances would define "religious uses," "private school," "parochial school," and the like.

Secondly, ask the highest ranking zoning official in your city or town for a definite answer to your question.

Almost every place that has a zoning ordinance includes in the ordinance some provision for challenging the rulings of a staff member. This usually involves filing a case with the zoning board of appeals, board of adjustment, or whatever that appeals body may be called in your jurisdiction. This filing probably will require a fee, and then it requires a hearing before the board of appeals, which functions independently from the city council, city staff, and even the planning and zoning commission. The only appeal from a board of adjustment ruling is to a court, which obviously would require more funding.

In general it is common for parochial (church-run) schools to be evaluated separately from the church for zoning purposes. If the zoning official says you need to file for and obtain a conditional use permit (which commonly requires the same process and public hearings as a zoning change), then no doubt you do. In fact it is becoming almost the norm for churches themselves to have to file for and receive a conditional use permit.

But your zoning ordinance might say that a school is a permitted auxiliary use (a term for a subordinate use) to a church, so this is why a close reading of your specific zoning ordinance is required, whether you do the reading yourself or rely on a city employee.

It also would be common for private and parochial schools to be permitted uses, or uses that are allowed providing a conditional use permit is issued, in an institutional zoning district.

We would offer a couple of additional comments in response to your question:

1. Your day-of-worship religious education for children and adults is a far different matter under zoning law than running a five-day-a-week school that teaches reading, writing, and arithmetic. Religion-only instruction of course would be allowed regardless of whether it happens on Sundays or Wednesday afternoons.

2. Just because people in the church think that education is allowed under your institutional zoning doesn't mean that it is. Often incorrect understandings of zoning perpetuate themselves in organizations, and of course, there is also the possibility that the zoning ordinance has changed since your church was first located there. Changing of zoning regulations happens fairly often without the kind of written notice that would happen if a neighbor filed for a zoning map change.

We hope these comments are helpful, but do read your zoning ordinance, if available to you, and then discuss with city officials.

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