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Muslim development plans meet resistance in rural Maryland

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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.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 2010, county leaders approved plans to build a mosque and community center. Residents filed two lawsuits to stop construction, based partly on the county not providing adequate notice of council meetings, but also in part "that Islam is not a religion and that Muslims posed a threat to the neighborhood," the research center summarized.

Last year in New York City, a Muslim group proposed building a mosque in a residential area of Brooklyn, and neighbors protested the plans, citing noise and traffic issues and claiming that the Muslim American Society proposing to build the mosque had ties to terrorism. One resident even threatened to bomb the mosque if it was built.

In Willowbrook, Ill., residents claimed traffic and water issues would make it difficult for the area to accept a mosque and Muslim gym and school.

Amy Lawless Ayala, lead organizer of DuPage United, which supported the mosque construction, said that at the time of the battle, "there's no doubt people felt some resistance because it was out of their comfort zone. But, as an organization, we never made it an Islamophobia issue."

"We personalized it," Ms. Ayala said, "so they realized this wasn't about neighbors against people from Mars. There were many efforts where the mosque community reached out and made big concessions I'm not sure even a church would do. They wanted to be neighborly. Regardless, we still had some neighbors who did not want it to happen."

A 'wedge issue'

Islamic centers aren't the only religious facilities to get pushback from communities, but they get the brunt of it.

Last year in northern New Jersey, a Catholic school attempting to expand its gymnasium to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act faced residents skeptical that the expansion was too large, as did a Catholic school in San Mateo, Calif., wanting to expand its gym.

In Palm Beach, Fla., a Jewish synagogue had to get town council approval to hold religious events in an adjoining garden lot — but not without an uproar from neighbors last year who wanted to keep their streets quiet.

Roman Storzer, a D.C.-based lawyer specializing in religious land-use cases, said that "minority religions definitely suffer disproportionately in terms of land-use regulations throughout the country."

"You see in these kinds of conflict, more often than not it's with Buddhists, Orthodox Jews or Muslims," he said.

One case in which Mr. Storzer was involved occurred in Walkersville, Md., about 30 miles northeast of the Woodmont property. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 2008 proposed buying a 224-acre farm and building a worship center for 200 people. They planned to set up sleeping space for up to 10,000 during an annual three-day festival.

The battle between the landowner, the Muslim community and residents outraged that their small town would nearly double in size made international headlines. The town's zoning board eventually rejected the proposal, citing traffic and water concerns, and the property owner — not the Muslim group — filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against Walkersville, which had to pay nearly $5 million for the property to settle the matter.

Steve Berryman, a spokesman for a citizens action group that fought the proposal, said the pushback stemmed from an honest concern for proper land use. But there was some discomfort with the prospective neighbors.

Sept. 11 "was not that long ago, and we're near enough to Camp David and Fort Detrick that people are very security-minded," Mr. Berryman said. "But even if it were a bunch of Boy Scouts, we would have opposed that, too. We truly would have."

Mr. Berryman's worry about land-use issues around the country is that, rather than residents using zoning as a way to mask religious intolerance, religious groups are using discrimination as a way to force land-use permits.

"What's happening is people are coming to an area and using religion as a wedge issue, a mechanism to shoehorn themselves into a community," Mr. Berryman said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't some bigots or racists out in the fringe. In a large group, there always are."

Whether those fringe members will become vocal about the Woodmont property remains to be seen, though once the county's planning and zoning board send their recommendation to the county council, the zoning amendment is likely to become more of a political issue this summer.

In the meantime, Mr. Skalny said, the people of Residents for the Responsible Development of Woodmont will continue to work with Mr. Oh and the Dar-us-Salaam community to come to a "common ground."

"This opposition group is in no way about religion," said Glen Moran, president of the citizens' association. "It's about establishing responsible land-use policies. If granted, this sets a precedent. This is a slippery slope."

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