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Bible camp developers lose latest appeal

December 03, 2019 by River News Staff

Three brothers who want to build a religious camp in Oneida County have been rebuffed by another court as the Wausau-based District III Court of Appeals issued a ruling Nov. 19 denying their latest appeal. 

Arthur, Wesley and Randall Jaros have been working since the mid-2000s to build a Bible camp, to be called Eagle Cove Camp and Conference Center, on 34 acres of property they own on Squash Lake west of Rhinelander. 

Between 2005 and 2010, Oneida County denied the brothers’ requests for various zoning changes related to the property. First, the family sought to have the property rezoned and, when that effort failed, applied for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to build the camp. The county denied the requests on the grounds a recreational camp is not a permitted use in the single family residential zoning district in which the property is located. Since that time, the brothers have continued to challenge the county’s decisions, questioning whether the county and Town of Woodboro can legally prohibit year-round religious camps in certain zoning districts even if that prohibition is based on secular reasons. 

In 2010, the brothers took their case to the federal courts, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), but were unsuccessful. Their claims were rejected at the district and appeals court levels, both of which ruled the county and town did not violate federal law and that even though year-round camps were not allowed on the Squash Lake property the Jaroses could still construct a church or school, or build in other zoning districts in the county that allow year-round recreational camps.

The courts also found the county has an overriding interest in preserving the secluded nature of the land around Squash Lake.

The family petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court decisions, but the nation’s highest court refused to hear the case. 

The most recent appeal stems from an Oneida County Circuit Court order, issued by Judge Michael Bloom, dismissing the brothers’ claims asserting various violations of their due process, religious burden/preference and equal protection rights under Wisconsin’s Constitution.

According to the Nov. 19 appeals court ruling, Oneida County argued that “claim preclusion and issue preclusion applied to each of Eagle Cove’s 15 new claims in this action because those claims had been or could have been litigated in the antecedent federal action. Additionally, it argued that only the board of adjustment was a proper party to Eagle Cove’s certiorari claim, and that the scope of the certiorari claim was limited by the federal decisions in the prior action (e.g., Eagle Cove could not assert that the board acted contrary to law in any manner rejected as an independent claim in the federal lawsuit). The Town joined in the County’s arguments. Additionally, the Town emphasized that the federal district court had determined that the Town had no independent authority to grant or deny a zoning change or a CUP. Accordingly, the Town asserted that it could not be liable to Eagle Cove for the denials, the claims against it were properly dismissed by the federal district court, and the parties were bound by that determination. Consequently, the Town moved for judgment on the pleadings and for sanctions against Eagle Cove for filing an action against it with no basis in fact or law.”

The appeals court upheld Bloom’s decision to dismiss Eagle Cove’s claims and found that the town should be allowed to seek sanctions.

“We conclude, as a matter of law, that the present action against the Town was frivolously commenced and maintained ... it should have been obvious to Eagle Cove that the Town had no authority over the land use decisions that thwarted its desired Bible camp,” the court wrote. “The fact that the circuit court found that some of Eagle Cove’s arguments for avoiding claim preclusion arguably demonstrated good faith does nothing to undercut the plain fact that Eagle Cove was suing the Town for something it had not done and could not do.”

This ruling leaves only the issue of sanctions and the certiorari review — a limited judicial review of the Oneida County Board of Adjustment’s decision denying the CUP — as the remaining unresolved matters in the dispute.

The Jaros family does have the right to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court but, like the U.S. Supreme Court, that panel must agree to hear the case.

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