- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Muslim group’s effort to move its campus from College Park to Maryland’s rural Howard County is being met with opposition from local residents, who say dense construction plans for the site would spoil the quiet character of the area.

Although both sides insist that the debate turns solely on setting zoning precedent, it marks the latest in a series of disputes across the country in which locals have resisted the introduction of Islamic centers to their communities.

The Maryland debate began last summer, when the Dar-us-Salaam community proposed replacing its overcrowded facility. The center would be built on about 66 acres of land once home to a Catholic school 45 miles north of the District. Bordered by thoroughbred horse farms, the property is about a 15-minute drive to the nearest Starbucks, Wal-Mart or McDonald’s.

Islamic center planners initially talked about sweeping renovations to the former Catholic school, with a massive five-sided mosque and cultural center. Early reports indicated plans to construct underground parking and build dormitories to accommodate 5,000 worshippers, though the community’s representatives have dismissed those suggestions.

The relocation hinges on a change to zoning restrictions — being sought by the foundation that operated the Catholic Woodmont school to enhance the value of the property — that limit the size and scope of development. Even if the change is approved by a five-member planning board and upheld by the County Council, another tenant — a school, a nursing home or an office park — could sweep in to outbid the religious community and develop the land.

At planning commission meetings, marathon public hearings and in conversation, residents who say they chose to live in the area because of its pastoral character talk about water and sewer capacity and site density.

Opponents number in the hundreds and have an attorney. Although they are vehement that their views are not based on anti-Muslim sentiment, a sensitivity to the perception of religious discrimination is never far from the discussion.

“My client doesn’t care if the applicant is Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim,” said Columbia lawyer Paul Skalny, who represents the group of Howard County residents. “They’ve maintained that if there was an agreement about the property use with a comparable intensity of how Woodmont used it, we’d be OK with that. The issue is whether this is an appropriate use of the property at this location.”

Sang Oh, the lawyer representing Woodmont who spoke on behalf of Dar-us-Salaam, is quick to point out the same.

“It is a land-use issue. We’re dealing with it as a land-use issue,” he said.

Land use or not, similar disputes — often centering on zoning — have emerged amid a flood of mosque construction across the country in recent years.

Community resistance

The number of mosques in the United States nearly doubled from 1,209 to 2,106 in 11 years, according to the Mosque Study Project of 2000 and the U.S. Mosque Study of 2011. In the past six years, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has documented more than 50 instances in which a building proposal by an Islamic group was met with resistance from the community.

“In some cases, it is simply ‘not in my backyard,’” said Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I have seen churches and synagogues face the same kind of issue. Unfortunately, the reality is in other places there are clear indicators of anti-Muslim sentiments. Sometimes it’s spoken quite loudly, other times it’s masked as zoning.”

Mr. Saylor said he had heard nothing specific to the case in Howard County, but he rattled off several cases — also included on the Pew list — in which “Islamophobia” appeared evident.

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