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Property owners sue Laurel for blocking lease to church

Two property owners are suing the city of Laurel, saying “discriminatory” legislation inhibited their ability to lease their property at 604 Main St.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month, Patricia Waters and Scott Novak argue legislation enforced by the city “had a discriminatory impact on houses of worship” and implemented “increasingly restrictive regulations” on leasing.

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In 2003, Waters and Novak purchased their two-story, free-standing property designated for retail or office space and used it to operate an edible fruit arrangement store known as Fruitflowers.

After the store closed, the property was rented by a tenant who operated a cigar lounge, according to the filed complaint.

Waters and Novak say the cigar lounge operator became friends with Christian Pulley, then assistant director of Economic and Community Development for the city of Laurel. The tenant was evicted in 2015 for not paying rent, the complaint said.

Waters and Novak were approached by Anthony Adenikinju, pastor of the Shadow of the Almighty Ministries, to rent the building for his congregation. The complaint argues Pulley was receptive to the prospect of the church being in Laurel until she learned it would be at the property owned by Waters and Novak.

The complaint says Pulley said the church could not exist on the property because of parking limitations, a move the plaintiffs’ attorney said was motivated by Pulley’s displeasure with the earlier eviction of her “friend” who ran the cigar lounge seven months prior.

“Ms. Pulley’s hostility to Waters combined with her ‘insider’ role in the city of Laurel’s land use/special exception process, a process that had no rational basis and had a discriminatory impact on churches, and allowed Ms. Pulley and other officials to exercise arbitrarily their discretion over the particular use” of the property, the complaint said.

“This exercise of authority is abuse of discretion and authority of a public official, and the process whereby the city controlled use of the property under the pretext of parking regulations, and the need to have a special exception process for churches on lots less than one acre, caused Plaintiffs to suffer monetary damages, as it was another two years before they were able to get a tenant, the current cigar lounge occupant,” the complaint said.

Thomas Supply Trade Cigars currently operates in the space.

Adenikinju eventually found a space for Shadow of the Almighty Ministries to rent off Fort Meade Road. At a Board of Appeals meeting in December 2016, Adenikinju sought a special exception for the church on a property zoned commercial general, at the shopping center that also leases space to the popular Dutch Country Market that operates three days a week.

Pulley endorsed the application, which the board approved with the stipulation that the church would not hold funerals, weddings or services while the market was open because of parking conflicts with customers and market employees. Minutes from the meeting noted that Pulley stated she had considered that.

An attorney for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pulley through a spokeswoman declined to comment.

“The City of Laurel has not been officially notified of the lawsuit, and since we haven’t read it, we cannot respond to it,” City of Laurel Communications Director Audrey Barnes said.

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