In tiny Wayzata, where all the land is spoken for, a longtime congregation is suing the city in federal court for not allowing it to tear down a house and build a new church in a residential neighborhood.

"Where they wanted to go has been zoned a residential area for years and years," said City Manager Allan Orsen. "Wayzata is just barely over 3 square miles and is 100 percent developed. There just really aren't lot of options."

Alison Albrecht of Minnetonka, board president for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, said: "No church could come into Wayzata with the zoning ordinances the way they are. Most communities allow churches in residential zones.

"We feel they are violating state and federal laws in regard to the zoning ordinance."

The city filed a response to the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court, asking for the case to be dismissed. City officials also are providing information for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the matter, said George Hoff, an attorney for the city.

The Justice Department confirmed an investigation of the city by its Civil Rights Division, but declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

Wayzata has 22 zoning districts, and churches are allowed in only one of those districts --a district zoned for institutional uses, including schools and government buildings.

The church is basing its suit on a provision of federal law that forbids unreasonable limits on houses of worship, Albrecht said.

Despite its Minnetonka name, the Unitarian congregation has been based in Wayzata for about 50 years. Since 1965 it has been located in a historic church building at 605 E. Rice St., Albrecht said.

But the quarters are cramped for its 200 members, she said, and the church lacks handicapped access and parking. After searching for a new location in the west suburbs for several years, the church board decided last year to stay in Wayzata and rebuild on residential property owned by one of its members, overlooking Hwy. 12.

Wayzata said no.

Hoping to stay in Wayzata

"A priority with the city for a long, long time has been to preserve our single-family home neighborhoods," said Mayor Ken Willcox.

The zoning requirements were put in place to keep "big footprint" uses such as schools, country clubs and churches under control, he said.

Attorney Hoff said the city is willing to work with the Unitarian church on reasonable expansion at its current site.

He said the church prompting of the Justice Department investigation has resulted in "unnecessary expenditure of public money."

Sam Diehl, an attorney for the church, said that Wayzata's zoning requirements are too restrictive.

"While Wayzata theoretically allows churches in the city, they have crafted their zoning ordinance in such a way that it's impossible to build a new church in the city," he said. "On only 4 percent of the land in Wayzata is it theoretically possible to build a church."

Said Willcox: "This church has been in Wayzata for decades -- it's not as though we keep churches out."

He said city zoning plans have been repeatedly approved by the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning authority.

The Unitarian church draws its attendance from a wide range of cities, making an easily reached location important, Albrecht said.

The property is a single home lot just under 3 acres. It's on the Hwy. 12 frontage road and would not require churchgoers to drive through a neighborhood to reach it, she said.

At a public hearing on the church proposal in December 2008, public comment was mostly opposed to the church proposal because it would change the residential character of the neighborhood.

After the hearings, city officials "made their decision based heavily on public opinion and not on any lawful objective criteria," Albrecht said. "Wayzata has been our home for 50 years, and we would like to stay there."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711