In 2006, Faith Fellowship Pastor Gary Mortara tried to move his fast-growing congregation from Washington Manor to a building in the industrial zone.
The city denied the move because it conflicted with zoning.
A legal battle ensued that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was recently settled when the city agreed to pay the church $2.3 million.
It cost taxpayers another $737,614 to try the case: $605,552 went to the Meyers Nave law firm in legal fees and and $132,062 was spent on depositions, experts, court reporters, and other costs.
In retrospect was the city wrong to pursue the case?
What did San Leandro get for its $3.37 million?
Patch asked city decision makers who were involved six years ago:
- former city manager John Jermanis,
- former mayor Tony Santos,
- city council members Michel Gregory, Jim Prola and Diana Souza
- and city attorney Jayne Williams
Santos, Souza and Williams replied.
They said, in essence, that San Leandro had to defend its zoning code. And what the city got for its $3.37 million was an end to the legal headaches and a zoning code that remains intact. Here are excerpts from their replies.
- Councilmember Souza: "No, I do not believe the city erred in the initial denial of the variance. The City got an end to this case brought against us, while preserving our zoning code. We defended our zoning codes and we admitted no wrong doing."
- City Attorney Jayne Williams said when the church bought the property it waived a contingency clause that would have allowed it to back out of the purchase if the city denied its variance. But Faith Fellowship had a favorable law on its side: The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). "The City had a very strong case but RLUIPA unfairly puts cities between a rock and hard place," Williams wrote. "Considering the cost of a trial and likely lengthy appeals, in addition to RLUIPA’ s attorney’s fees provisions (settlement made sense). The litigation is now concluded and the City’s land use plan and goals remain intact."
- Former Mayor Santos said negotiations went on in the background as city staff tried to meet the church's needs at some other site. " There is a lot more here than I can detail," he said, "but in my opinion Pastor Mortara and his elders brought it all on themselves and Staff/City did all it could to accommodate them, without success."
Many Commented, Including Pastor Gary
A story about the settlement drew dozens of comments, including this reply from "Pastor Gary" addressed to the former mayor:
"Really Mr. Santos? Do you forget sir, that you called me into your office and said to me, "I want you in that building?" Do you forget sir, that in my office I handed you written letters from the businesses in the area ALL welcoming our church into that building and you took it to show Mr. Jermanis and then I didn't hear from you again?
We were asked by city staff to file a rezone application, which we did. We were asked to pay $2,000 for the application, we did. We were not heard by the council until a year later.
You say you offered us alternative sites. Where?
John Jermanis said in legal depositions that there were no other buildings for FF to relocate too. We told you we were not married to this building, that if you had another one we would take it . . .
. . . The reason we settled for $2.3 is we never wanted money from the city. We just wanted your support. We could have won much more in the trial, but it would have cost everyone more money that only the attorneys really end up winning. The $2.3 is nothing. We lost twice that, sir.
A building was all, and is all, we need and needed. Period. We didn't need anything else."
Where do things stand?
Faith Fellowship is still looking for a new location in San Leandro, Mortara told Patch. Where, he didn't specify. Look for more on that later.