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Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

July 20, 2018

COUNTY OF MAUI, Defendant.


          Susan Oki Mollway United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Fredrick R. Honig bought land on Maui zoned for agricultural use. Honig leased the land to Plaintiff Spirit of Aloha Temple, which, in turn, applied for a Special Use Permit to build a church and hold religious events on the land, uses not allowed without a Special Use Permit in the agricultural zone in which the land was located. After the requested Special Use Permit was denied, Plaintiffs filed this action, asserting religious discrimination. Counts I, II, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX against Defendant County of Maui remain for adjudication.[1]

         Before the court are motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiffs and the County of Maui. Both motions are denied.

         II. BACKGROUND.

         Well Being International Inc. was incorporated in February 1993 for the purpose of “perform[ing] research and instruction for individual and global peace, harmony, and health.” It specializes in “Yoga, Meditation, Stress Management, Vegetarian Diet, and Drug Free Living.” ECF No. 183-2, PageID # 2512. Honig was listed as its president and one of three directors. Id., PageID # 2513.

         In September 1994, Honig purchased property on Haumana Road in Haiku, Hawaii. See ECF No. 183-2, PageID #s 2479-87.[2]For State Land Use District purposes, the property was mostly designated for agricultural use, with a portion designated for conservation use. With respect to the Paia-Haiku Community Plan and County of Maui zoning, the property was designated for agricultural use. See ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2584. Honig knew the property was designated for agricultural and conservation use when he purchased it. Honig Depo. at 43. In fact, Honig had asked his realtor to locate agricultural land for him to purchase. Id.

         In March 2003, Honig transferred the property to the Trustee of The Frederick R. Honig Revocable Living Trust Dated October 1, 1996. The document stated that Honig was also known as Swami Swaroopananda. See ECF No. 183-2, PageID #s 2503-10.

         In July 2002, Honig, on behalf of Well Being International, applied for the trade name of Maui Gay Weddings, stating that the nature of the business was “Counseling and commitment ceremonies.” ECF No. 183-2, PageID # 2518. In April 2003, Honig renewed the Maui Gay Weddings trade name on behalf of Well Being International. Id., PageID # 2520. At the same time, Honig, on behalf of Well Being International, applied for the trade name of A Marriage Made in Heaven, again stating that the purpose of the business was “Counseling and commitment ceremonies.” Id., PageID # 2522. A little more than a month later, Honig, on behalf of Well Being International, applied for the trade name of Maui Wedding Planners, this time stating that the nature of the business was “Wedding Planning & Services.” Id., PageID # 2524. In July 2007, Honig, on behalf of Well Being International, renewed the trade name of A Marriage Made in Heaven. Id., PageID # 2525. Honig admits that these trade names were created so that Well Being International could advertise for weddings or sacred unions. See Honig Depo. at 73, ECF No. 183-2, PageID # 2439. Between September 8, 1996, and December 5, 2015, over 500 weddings were performed on Honig's property. See ECF No. 183-16, PageID #s 3037-51.

         In November 2005, Honig signed a lease of the Haumana Road property to Well Being International on behalf of himself as lessor and as the president of the lessee. The lease rent was $3, 400 per month and the lease ran through September 30, 2010. The lease provided that use of the property was “To Be in accordance with Agricultural zoning and Maui County ordinances.” ECF No. 183-2, PageID #s 2550-56. At the time the lease was signed, the property was apparently owned by the Trustee of The Frederick R. Honig Revocable Living Trust Dated October 1, 1996, not Honig individually. See ECF No. 183-2, PageID #s 2503-10.

         In September 2007, Spirit of Aloha Temple, Inc., was incorporated; Honig was listed as its Senior Minister. Id., PageID #s 2557-72; Decl. of Frederick R. Honig ¶ 4, ECF No. 185-1; PageID # 3123. Honig and Spirit of Aloha Temple practice “Integral Yoga, ” which “integrates the eight branches of Yoga into a holistic approach to experiencing Unitive Consciousness.” Honig Decl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 185-1; PageID # 3123. For purposes of the present motions, the County of Maui does not contest the validity of Honig's religion or the sincerity of his beliefs. Thus, William Spence, of the County of Maui, stated during his deposition that the County was expressing no opinion as to the sincerity of Plaintiffs' religious beliefs. See Deposition of William Spence at 130, ECF No. 185-5, PageID # 3206. He did note, however, that some of the proposed uses might not be religious in nature, such as a commercial wedding business or helicopter flights. Id. at 131-32, PageID #s 3207-08. The number of weddings held on the property causes the County of Maui to characterize Plaintiffs as conducting a commercial wedding venture on the property.

         The County of Maui also believes that the Special Use Permit was not actually sought for church functions. For example, the County of Maui points out that Honig's sister, Meenakshi Honig, who testified that she is a board member of Spirit of Aloha Temple, has never seen the lease for the property. See ECF No 183-10, PageID #s 2925, 2932. She further testified that there are no regular congregations of church members on the property. Id., PageID # 2936. She also testified that performimg weddings is “not essential to the belief system” of Integral Yoga. Id., PageID # 2937.

         On October 12, 2007, Spirit of Aloha Temple, through Honig, applied for a Special Use Permit for the property to be used for a “Church, church operated bed and breakfast establishment, weddings, special events, day seminars, and helicopter landing pad.” ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2592. The application stated that the property was currently being used for a “Botanical Garden & Agriculture.” Id. On June 30, 2008, Spirit of Aloha Temple amended the Special Use Permit application to include the development of the Spirit of Aloha Temple, stating, “Church activities would include a weekly service, classes, special events, day programs and weddings.” ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2593. The court notes that, at the time of the 2007 application, the property appears to have been leased to Well Being International, not Spirit of Aloha Temple. See ECF No. 183-2.

         On August 28, 2008, the County sent the Special Use Permit application out for agency comment. See Concise Statement ¶ 12; Plaintiff's Concise Counter Statement, ECF No. 193, PageID # 3799 (admitting same).

         On March 30, 2010, the Planning Commission for the County of Maui held a hearing on the Special Use Permit application. See Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision and Order of Maui Planning Commission. See ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2583. The Maui Planning Commission voted 5 to 3 to deny the application, reasoning that a proposed heliport was not allowed under the Maui County Code, that many of the buildings on the property lacked permits, and that agricultural property was not intended for commercial purposes. Id., PageID #s 2586-87; 2590.

         On May 17, 2010, Plaintiffs unsuccessfully sought reconsideration of the denial of the Special Use Permit, arguing that the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and proposing that the permit be amended to include only a church and related church activities. Id.. PageID # 2587-88; 2590.

         In December 2011, Honig, as Trustee of The Frederick R. Honig Revocable Living Trust, leased the property to Spirit of Aloha Temple, Inc., for $5, 000 per month through December 1, 2019. ECF No. 183-2, PageID # 2575-78. The lease stated that the property was to be used “As a Botanical Garden[] in accordance with Agricultural zoning and Maui county ordinances.” Id., PageID # 2575. Honig says that Spirit of Aloha Temple did not look at any other properties before leasing the Haumana Road property. According to Honig, the property is sacred and is the world's “most perfect property.” See Honig Depo. at 142-43, ECF No. 183-2, PageID # 2456; Honig Decl. ¶ 27, ECF No. 185-1; PageID # 3128 (“The Property itself is uniquely sacred to me and the Spirit of Aloha Temple.”). He says that, in the 23 years that he has owned the property, the spiritual significance of it has grown through the spiritual activity that has occurred on the property. See Honig Decl. ¶ 22, ECF No. 185-1; PageID # 3127. This spiritual activity includes religious services, sacred events such as weddings and baptisms, and classes on spiritual beliefs. Id. ¶ 31, PageID # 3129. In addition, the founder of Integral Yoga, Sri Swami Satchidananda, blessed the property in 1997. Id. ¶ 23, PageID # 3127. Honig says that Plaintiffs do not own other property where they can practice their religion. Id. ¶ 47, PageID # 3132.

         In September 2012, the County of Maui issued Honig three violation notices for building a structure without the proper permit, conducting transient vacation rentals on property where such rentals are not allowed, and conducting commercial weddings on property where such weddings are not allowed. The County of Maui ordered Honig to cease and desist the conduct. See ECF No. 183-8, PageID #s 2877-78. The County of Maui and Honig ultimately settled these matters. See id., PageID #s 2877-83.

         On November 21, 2012, Spirit of Aloha Temple, through Honig, submitted a second Special Use Permit application to use the property for church activities. ECF No. 183-6, PageID #2803. Spirit of Aloha Temple sought to use the property for a classroom on weekdays; a weekly church service; and educational, inspirational, and spiritual events, including “Hawaiian Cultural Events, such as Hula performances, Seminars on Hawaiian Plant Based Nutrition, Cultural Music Performances, and Spiritual commitment ceremonies including Weddings.” Id., PageID # 2811.

         The Maui Planning Department issued a report to the Maui Planning Commission that recommended approving the 2012 Special Use Permit application with conditions. See ECF No. 183-7, PageID # 2842-62. The staff report examined the applicable statutes and regulations, noting that the proposed use was not permitted in a state agricultural district. Id., PageID # 2849. It noted that, under section 205-6 of Hawaii Revised Statutes, “unusual and reasonable uses” were allowed when a State Land Use Commission Special Use Permit was approved. Id., PageID #s 2849 and 2854. The staff report indicated that there were “guidelines” for determining whether there was an “unusual and reasonable use.” Id., PageID # 2854. These “guidelines” were set forth in Hawaii Administrative Rules § 15-15-95. The staff report examined all of the “guidelines.” In relevant part, the staff report indicated that the proposed use satisfied the second and third guidelines, and that the proposed uses would not affect surrounding properties or unreasonably burden public agencies by requiring provision of roads, sewers, water, drainage, school improvements, or police and fire protection. Id., PageID #s 2854-55.

         The staff report ultimately recommended granting the requested Special Use Permit with conditions:

- Events permitted for a total of 24 attendees (including employees/staff) and that classes shall be limited to four (4) per week usually between 10 AM and 4 PM Church Service
- Events permitted for a total of 24 attendees (including employees/staff) and that a church service shall be limited to one
(1) per week usually between 10 AM and 2 PM on Saturdays
Church Related Special Events Such as Weddings/Inspirational Events Shall be Limited by the following:
Maximum number of church related events per year
- 48 - 24 events out of a total of 48 events may have a total of between 25 to 40 participants including employees/staff
- Events permitted for a total of 25 to 40 participants are limited to two (2) per month
  • The remainder of 24 church related events shall be limited for up to 24 people, including employees/staff

- In no case may there be more than four (4) church related events per month
- Shuttles must be employed to transport participants for events with 25 or more people
  • Church related events shall be held between 10 AM and 8 PM

Id., PageID # 2844.

         The Maui Planning Commission then examined the 2012 Special Use Permit request, receiving testimony supporting and opposing it. Concerns were raised with respect to the limitations and dangers of Haumana Road, pedestrian and child safety, weddings, parties, and alcohol on the property. See Concise Statement ¶ 35; Counter Concise Statement ¶ 35 (admitting same).

         Specifically, the Maui Planning Commission's Findings of Facts and Minutes noted that: (1) Jessica Caudill had expressed concern that the proposed uses would dramatically increase traffic on Haumana Road (where cars have to pull off the road to let other cars pass), would have negative effects on pedestrian safety, and raised child safety concerns by bringing strangers to the area; (2) Antonio Piazza had expressed concern that Plaintiffs had been using the property for unpermitted commercial wedding operations even after Honig's earlier request to conduct weddings on the property had been denied, increasing traffic in the area and creating danger because partygoers drank alcohol; (3) Nancy Gilgoff had expressed concern that, because alcohol was being served at events, there was increased traffic and an increased likelihood of vehicle and pedestrian accidents; (4) Stephanie Gilgoff had expressed concern with respect to increased traffic, road safety, and the impact on the quiet neighborhood; (5) William Knowlton had recalled that earlier cliffside weddings had blocked ocean access, and there were past illegal commercial weddings, transient vacation rentals, and yoga classes; and (6) Daniel Mizner had noted that the proposed uses were inconsistent with the agricultural zoning and had expressed concern about roadway safety because the road was only 10 feet wide at points. Lani Starr, on the other hand, supported the proposed permit. See ECF No. 185-9, PageID #s 3280-82; ECF No. 183-9, PageID #s 2905-13.

         Robbie Naish, Plaintiffs' neighbor, told the Planning Commission in March 2010 that low-speed accidents occurred on the road all the time, that he had had near misses, and that he had personally seen two overturned cars on the narrow Haumana Road. He complained that people drove too fast on the road and noted that there was no place to pull off the road. ECF No. 183-4, PageID #s 2708-09.

         Various departments also commented on Plaintiffs' Special Use Permit application. For example, although the Maui Police Department did not object to the issuance of the permit, it noted that the road to the Haumana Road property was “narrow with no lane markings and no street lights.” It further noted that the road was so narrow that it “could not accommodate two vehicles to pass through the road at the same time.” The Police Department recommended that the road be widened because, if cars parked on the road, emergency vehicles would not be able to pass them and reach the property. It also suggested that street lighting be installed. ECF No. 183-9, PageID # 2894-95.

         The Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources also commented on the 2012 Special Use Permit application, noting that its approval was needed before any of the proposed activities began. See ECF No. 183-9, PageID # 2898-99.

         The State of Hawaii Department of Health, Safe Drinking Water Branch, noted that it had been dealing with Honig for several years. It stated that, if the average daily number of people visiting the proposed temple over 60 days was 25 or more, the temple would be required to comply with all requirements for public water systems. That is, such requirements would be mandatory if the temple had more than 60 events in a year with 25 or more attendees. ECF No. 183-9, PageID # 2900-01. Officials also expressed concern about the quality of the water at the temple and recommended testing the water. Id., PageID # 2902.

The State of Hawaii's Office of Planning stated:
Pursuant to HRS Chapter 205, lands in the Agricultural District are limited to agricultural uses and activities that support agricultural uses. The proposal calls for non-agricultural uses. In addition, business uses may bring additional traffic to the property. These non-agricultural uses will eventually impact the existing botanical garden activities, since the school, weddings, and other commercial performances may be more profitable than the botanical garden activities on-site. Other ...

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