TEMECULA, Calif. – After the Mediterranean climate and sandy soil, winemaker Ray Falkner said his greatest asset is the view of rolling vine-covered hills from the top of his property in Southern California.
Confident the Temecula Valley wine-grape region's strict zoning limits would protect that view, he built a multimillion dollar banquet hall with floor-to-ceiling windows peering across a gorge to a nearby vineyard. Now he's worried that vantage could be ruined by a Christian congregation's request to change the region's zoning so it can build on part of the vineyard.
Falkner's property has become the front line of a bitter divide between churches and growers in Temecula's wine country, where vintners fear a push to allow more houses of worship would hurt views, limit wine sales and cause conflicts between grape growers and congregations.
"We are in an economic development zone specifically targeted with the mission of being able to enhance the development of new wineries and the growth of existing wineries," Falkner said. "How does a church help that mission?"
Supporters of the Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship's expansion plans said they have nothing against the wineries, but Riverside County's zoning rules violate a 2000 federal law prohibiting governments from discriminating against religious institutions.
"Morally, constitutionally, it's just wrong. It's just flat-out un-American to say you just can't build a church," said Clark Van Wick, pastor of Calvary Chapel.
Van Wick's cause has been taken up by Riverside County-based Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which has represented churches in zoning disputes in the past but is best known as a courtroom combatant in the fight over gay marriage.
The county planning commission plans to vote in early November whether to recommend approval of a plan that would enable religious groups to build in the wine country. The final decision will be left to the county's board of supervisors.
The dispute is the latest in a string of zoning conflicts involving houses of worship since the passage of the federal law.
An appeals court ruled in May that commissioners in Boulder County, Colo., must allow a church to double its square footage to 240,000 feet, which the commission said was an overly intensive use of land in an agricultural area.
In 2003, the Michigan township of Delhi, near Lansing, amended its zoning ordinance after a church threatened a lawsuit after it was denied a permit to hold services in a commercial area.
Patricia Salkin, a land-use law expert who directs the Government Law Center at Albany Law School in New York, said governments are increasingly timid about going to court because of the expense of a trial, even if they think they can win.
"The religious groups have effectively been able to, in some cases, bully local governments into changing their planning and zoning," Salkin said.
But she said Temecula might have trouble arguing its zoning doesn't violate the so-called equal terms provision of the law because it allows restaurants that serve as gathering places, but not churches.
In Temecula's case, church members are challenging a zoning code in place since 1994, when the wineries pushed for more control over the area to develop it as a tourist destination and protect its agricultural character.
The code was later adjusted to include bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and other businesses seen as conducive to tourism.
Churches were not included among the permitted uses because of state regulations barring the sale of alcohol in the "immediate vicinity" of places of worship. That limit is open to interpretation, but vintners feared an influx of churches could stop them from selling wine and opening tasting rooms, where many small operators do most of their business.
For Falkner and his wife, Loretta, the big concern is protecting the landscape, which is key to attracting people for weddings and other events.
"This could ruin my business because brides are very fickle and emotional and they don't want to be looking at parking lots," Loretta Falkner said. "They book me because of the sunsets and vineyards around them."
For now, Calvary Chapel, which opened in the area before the zoning excluded churches, is hidden on the other side of a hill from the Falkners' banquet room.
Van Wick said the congregation that gathers there began as a small prayer group that met in his home. When the group grew too large for his living room, it moved to what is now a tidy 7-acre campus of manicured lawns and one-story wooden buildings surrounding an artificial waterfall.
About four months ago, with up to 3,000 adult parishioners and countless children attending services each week, Van Wick bought the adjacent 23-acre vineyard for $1.1 million after the previous owner went bankrupt, according to county records.
The congregation hopes to build a couple of two-story buildings there and convert its current space into a school.
"We're on this piece of property and we're maxed out," Van Wick said. "We just need more space. Like anything that grows, you need to expand."