by Robin Kemp

The Jonesboro City Council will discuss a settlement agreement with Casa de Alabanza at tonight’s work session. The work session takes place in the second floor courtroom of Jonesboro Police Headquarters, 170 S. Main Street, Jonesboro, at 6 p.m. You can read the agenda and agenda packet, as well as view video of the meeting, on the city’s website.

The matter involves a civil rights case filed in U.S. District Court filed December 9, 2020 before Judge Leigh Martin May. The parties agreed on January 10 to settle the case and had 60 days to do so. On March 22, May granted both sides a 60-day extension, which gives them until May 21 to file.

Casa Alabanza and Jonesboro Commercial Center, LLC, which is based in Griffin and owned by John Reed Carlisle, had taken the city to court, asking the court to declare that the city had violated the church’s civil rights and the property owner’s value when it refused to let the church occupy the property at 7827 Old Morrow Road. At the time, the city said, the strip mall had three other churches as tenants.

Casa Alabanza, which at the time was located at 429 Roy Huie Road in Riverdale, had signed a lease agreement with Jonesboro Commercial Center for the Old Morrow Road space, a “traditional 1950s” strip mall which already was built out as a church and had two other churches next to the space. Jonesboro Commercial Center told Casa Alabanza they would need to apply to the city for a conditional use permit.

Casa Alabanza’s Facebook page lists its current location as 2780 Mt. Zion Road in Jonesboro, the former site of Crossroads Baptist Church. LoopNet had listed the church’s address as “HOT! HOT! HOT!,” adding that the land can be bought without the buildings, that the property is on a feeder road, and that it would be “perfect for,” among other things, a “commercial strip center”–ironically, not unlike Jonesboro Commercial Center.

Landlord: We lost income, property value

According to the complaint, “To date, plaintiff Jonesboro Center has lost rental income from the church space in the sum of $3,363.00 per month to date, and that number will continue to increase each month.” In addition, the property value has gone down $265,000 “since churches have been prohibited from occupying space therein, as determined by the Clayton County Board of Equalization.”

In all, the property owners sought more than $325,000 in losses from the city at the time the suit was filed.

The plaintiffs alleged the city was “arbitrary and capricious” when it designated Old Morrow Road a “local street,” which prevented using the property as a house of worship.

Under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” That law, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, prohibits local governments from using zoning and landmarking processes to:

  • “place unjustifiable burdens on religious exercise”
  • “treat religious assemblies and institutions worse than nonreligious assemblies and institutions”
  • “discriminate against religious assemblies or institutions based on religion or religious denomination”
  • “totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies and institutions from a particular municipality or county”

The city changed its zoning ordinance (Sec. 86-163) to require that houses of worship be allowed only on collector streets, in a freestanding building on at least a one-acre lot, as well as at least 150 feet of road frontage. That would force churches, mosques, or other congregations onto “the most expensive tracts in [Jonesboro], making it likely out of reach of the financial resources of a small congregation”–a situation that “is particularly egregious and restrictive given current commercial market conditions” in the city.

Since 1978, Jonesboro Commercial Center had owned the property, which was zoned as office and institutional. Over the years, according to the complaint, “the area around the subject property declined as the industrial uses along Old Morrow Road ceased and commercial uses along Old Morrow Road declined. Also, SR 138 underwent improvements which re-routed traffic away from Old Morrow Road.” However, the owner kept up the property and continued to rent it out to “a telephone answering service, a recording studio, a septic tank maintenance company, Parents Without Partners, and several church congregations.”

In 2013, the city rezoned the property as highway commercial (C-2). Churches were permitted under both the old and new zoning, and the property owner had so many requests for church tenants, he renovated the larger spaces for that purpose.

Between 1987 and 2019, the complaint alleged, the city approved “a number” of churches to use the space, even though the city had “adopted text amendments to its Zoning Ordinance which would otherwise have precluded them.” At its May 6, 2019 work session, the council discussed deleting the entire commercial-industrial (C-I) district from the city’s zoning ordinance, along with 86-113, which Allen noted was “largely redundant when compared to the Assembly Overlay District, Section 86-110, it does not appear on the Official Zoning Map, and its standards can be covered in the Conditional Uses and Additional Conditional Uses sections of the Code, relative to places of assembly.”

On May 13, the council took up the proposed changes. No one commented during the public hearing and the council voted unanimously to delete those matters from city zoning regulations and code.

Mosque turned down for same space

But in May 2019, a mosque that had applied for a conditional use permit in the city center allegedly “encountered unexpected difficulty.” The mosque, Markazul Irrshaad/Masjid Bilal, also had signed a lease with Jonesboro Commercial Center. According to the complaint, the City of Jonesboro “would not accept the filing of the CUP application, advising that its development regulations governing new religious worship facilities had changed.” The mosque then withdrew its CUP application. Its current address is 696 Mt. Zion Road in Morrow.

Under Jonesboro’s zoning ordinance, conditional uses “may be permitted upon a finding by mayor and council that the proposed use conforms to the minimum listed conditions and the standards of review of this article.” Once a conditional use is granted, it “will continue so long as the use thereby allowed is actually being conducted on the property to which it applies or as subsequently modified by the mayor and council pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.” After 90 days of inactivity, the conditional use automatically expires, based on the zoning administrator’s observations of the property and not the “subjective intent” of the property owner or lessee.

In other words, even if an agreement had been signed between the property owner and the mosque or church, technically the city could drag out the permitting process for 90 days on an empty property until the conditional use lapsed.

The complaint alleged that, “(o)ver time, [Jonesboro’s] regulations governing the location of a church as a conditional use became more complex and restrictive,” particularly “in areas zones O&I and C-2.” Minutes of the August 11, 2014 City Council meeting show Carlisle appeared before the council to request that change. The city also designated Old Morrow Road as a “local street,” even though it continued to approve new churches on the property until 2019.

On June 19, 2021, soon after the mosque had applied for its permit, Carlisle made his wife, Carole, the company’s registered agent.

In February 2020, Alabanza applied for a conditional use permit (20-CU-003). They attached a constitutional objection to the city’s zoning prohibitions on a church in the space, as well as an objection to hearing, “which preserved their right to present and object to evidentiary matters on appeal.”

City: Denial was based on zoning requirements

For its part, the city said it considered the application “subject to ‘the procedural requirements of property rezoning of Article XII.” The council first took up the matter during the March 2, 2020 work session. At that work session, City Manager Ricky Clark recommended denial and noted in a memo to the council the following timetable:

  • November 11, 2013 – John Carlisle’s request for a Conditional Use for a church at 7857 Old Morrow Road was denied by City Council.
  • May 12, 2014 – John Carlisle’s request for a Conditional Use for a church at 7839 Old Morrow Road was approved by City Council.
  • August 11, 2014 – John Carlisle’s request for the rezoning of 7857 Old Morrow Road from O&I (Office Institutional) to C-2 (Highway Commercial) was approved by the City Council.
  • October 2018 – The New Mount Carmel Apostolic Church was allowed by new City Zoning Administrator David Allen to assume the place of the recently moved Servants of Love 5Fold Outreach Ministries, which had been gone less than 90 days. (See Sec. 86-121.)
  • February 2019 – The City Manager Ricky Clark and Zoning Administrator David Allen personally worked with Mr. Carlisle to locate a new commercial business (food service) at his Old Morrow Road property.
  • February 2019 – The City’s Table of Uses and Conditional Use standards were revised, affecting many types of uses. One of the changes affecting churches and other certain uses (from diagnostic laboratories to libraries and tire stores) was the requirement that these specified uses be located in stand-alone buildings and not connected storefronts.
  • May 2019 – The City’s Table of Uses and Conditional Use standards were further revised, including churches.
  • In June 2019, the property owner, Mr. Carlisle, inquired about the new standards and how they would affect an additional church going into the building on the property. The Zoning Administrator replied that all new and existing standards would have to be taken into account.”

The specific standards Clark emphasized were the collector road and standalone building requirements.

According to the federal complaint, the public hearing “was delayed until November 9, 2020.” Allen recommended denial, with the council and Mayor Joy Day voting 4-3 to deny the application.

The reasons the city gave for denying the application, according to the denial letter from Community Development Director and Zoning Administrator David Allen, were that the church allegedly “did not satisfy [its] burden showing that the application for Conditional Use Permit will promote the public health, safety, morality and general welfare of the City of Jonesboro. Furthermore, the application does not meet the certain conditions required by Section 86-183; among other considerations; and could negatively impact the adjacent properties as inadequate parking spaces on the property, and increase [sic] traffic could lead to an encroachment on neighboring properties and increase congestion on public streets within the area.”

At that point, Alabanza and Jonesboro Commercial Center had 30 days to file an appeal. However, the complaint alleges, the city’s development director did not notify them of the denial until November 20, 2020.

The city filed its answer in February 2021, denying any knowledge of the alleged civil rights violations against the church and of the events surrounding the mosque’s application. The city  “expressly deni[ed] that it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act…or that it violated any of plaintiff’s rights, or the rights of others, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, the Constitution and laws of the State of Georgia, or otherwise.”

The city also denied that it had done anything wrong by denying the conditional use permit, saying the plaintiffs had “failed to timely or otherwise pursue legal remedies available to them under state law seeking review of the denial of the application for a Conditional Use Permit,” and that the mayor and council’s “legislative decision to deny plaintiff’s conditional use permit was neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

Settlement terms still under discussion

On December 13, both sides agreed to a proposed consent order that would allow “Plaintiff Jonesboro Commercial Center, LLC, its successors and/or assigns will submit an application for a conditional use permit and/or a change of zoning conditions in connection with property located at 7815-7857 Old Morrow Road.” Jonesboro Commercial Center agreed to drop the suit “(s)o long as the city acts consistently with the executed Settlement Agreement and upon receipt by Plaintiffs of the consideration agreed to in connection with the settlement of this case.” U.S. District Court Judge May approved the agreement on January 10 and gave both parties 60 days to file either the documents needed to dismiss the case or a joint status update on their progress.

The case could be reopened by either party.

On December 21, 2021 Jonesboro Commercial Center, LLC sold JHJ Old Morrow LLC of Peachtree City, whose registered agent is Mack Reynolds, sold a limited warranty deed of $925,000 on the property. Reynolds is a longtime real estate broker and attorney.

The following day, Jonesboro Commercial Center, LLC et al. filed a quitclaim deed for $0, turning over the property to JHJ Old Morrow LLC and RCB Old Morrow, LLC, which is owned by Robert C. Baral. Glenda Gordon Jones was added as a registered agent to JHJ on January 26.

Another 60-day extension was granted at the plaintiffs’ request March 22.

Tonight’s work session will “effectuate the settlement agreement and change in conditions contained in the Jonesboro Commercial Center Litigation.” No dollar amount was specified in court documents.

The Clayton Crescent has left messages seeking comment from the city, Casa Alabanza, and Markazul Irrshaad/Masjid Bilal.

Other items on the work session agenda include:

  • an “actual cost utility agreement” with the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Power, and Clayton County to maintain and run street lights on Tara Boulevard
  • a memorandum of understanding with Clayton County Public Schools to develop “a student-led plan to bring MathTalk installations and technology to Lee Street Park,” as well as a proposed May 20 parade for Perry Career Academy graduating seniors and a fee waiver for Perry Career Academy and CCPS to hold “a school-wide Teacher Engagement Event” on May 25
  • purchase of a 2022 Chevrolet Tahoe PPV
  • putting in electricity at the community garden
  • the approval of establishing electricity at the community garden
  • Dell OptiPlex 5400 computers for City Hall and the police department
  • a resolution recognizing Georgia Cities Week, April 24-30

The agenda also calls for an executive session on “personnel and pending and/or potential litigation.”

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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