Facing a lawsuit, the city of St. Michael has agreed to zoning changes that would allow a Big Lake church to open a second location in a former movie theater in St. Michael.
But a new obstacle has cropped up for Riverside Church: While its legal skirmish with the city moved toward the partial settlement, the owner of the theater building more than doubled its asking price.
"The suit is ongoing," said Sam Diehl, an attorney representing the church. Diehl said St. Michael's actions effectively prevented the church from buying the building last fall when the price was $2.27 million. He said the church has been told the price is now more than $5 million.
In a letter this week on its website, Riverside Senior Pastor Tom Lundeen said, "Last fall, we had our financing approved from both our church and our lender." Lundeen described the increased purchase price as a "significant financial barrier."
A spokesman for the property's owner, Cinemasota Inc., declined to comment Wednesday on the price of the property. The Woodbury company has owned the building since early last year.
The dispute surfaced last month in a suit filed by Riverside in U.S. District Court that claimed the city had infringed on the church's constitutional rights of free speech and religious assembly when it refused to let it open the new location. The suit also cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits cities from placing an "undue burden" on religious organizations looking to buy or rent space.
The suit came almost a year after St. Michael told Riverside that the city's zoning rules didn't allow churches in commercial districts like the one where the theater building is located.
The City Council subsequently rejected Riverside's proposal to amend the zoning rules, thwarting its plans to simultaneously broadcast services in Big Lake and St. Michael, projecting services on the theater's screens.
Riverside's suit seeks to stop the city from enforcing the ordinances, and also seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Last week, the council approved a conditional use permit that would let the church occupy the former theater.
"The church initially had demanded a permit without conditions," said George Hoff, an attorney for the city. But Riverside now has agreed to several conditions aimed at monitoring and controlling vehicle traffic at the St. Michael site on days of worship services.
In his online letter, Lundeen said Riverside continues to look for a second location. It has been in Big Lake since 1973 and expanded that facility several times.
"We are currently evaluating our alternatives for a second location, including exploring other possible means to purchase the theater," Lundeen said.