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Residents protest planned mosque in Sterling Heights

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Over 200 residents came out Saturday morning to protest the construction of a mosque on 15 Mile in Sterling Heights.

Sterling Heights — More than 200 residents, some fearing traffic congestion and lowered property values, lined a section of 15 Mile near Mound Saturday morning to protest a plan to build a mosque at the site.

Many of the demonstrators waved American flags and crosses, others carried signs like "Wrong place" and "Build homes on this site" and "No mosque." Some chanted "Vote No on land review" concerning the 20,500-square foot mosque planned on four and a half acres of largely undeveloped property between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive.

Police who monitored the event described it as peaceful but had to caution several demonstrators, for their own safety, to stand back from the busy 15 Mile traffic after several stuck their hands and signs out towards passing motorists.

"We said no to this (plan) earlier this month — that should be the end of it," said Mark Cacho, who lives on 15 Mile directly across from the site. "Take it somewhere else. This is a neighborhood, we don't need anymore traffic. This is America and everyone expresses what they feel."

Cacho, like many others at the demonstration, said they first learned of the plan in late July when they received a postcard from the city advising them it would be taken up at a Sterling Heights planning commission meeting. Many packed the meeting earlier this month, hotly debating the project for more than four hours and stalling a vote for special land use. The property is currently zoned single-family residential but approval can be made for a house of worship.

Debbie Rossi, center, lives across the street from the planned site. She is the organizer of the Saturday protest.

"We are upset but not because it is a mosque," said Debbie Rossi, a long-time city resident, who also lives across from the site. "This is being planned in a residential Catholic community. But we live here because it is a residential community. Now we have deer and fox and beautiful trees. I don't want to hear calls for prayer five times a day but I would be opposed to a church being put up on the site.

"There is already enough traffic along 15 Mile Road," she said. "The site being planned is supposedly for 400 people but they have only 100 parking spaces. Where are the other cars going to be parked? They are going to be parked along our streets in our neighborhood. Realtors said we can expect a 30 percent drop in our property values. We don't need this. It’s a bad, bad idea."

A site plan shown at the August 13 meeting detailed plans of the 20,500 square foot building with a 3,200 square foot main worship area for 325 people. Plans showed 130 parking spaces.

The multi-million dollar project is being proposed by Jaafar Chehab, director of the American Islamic Community Center in Madison Heights. Chehab, a Sterling Heights resident for 37 years, could not be reached for comment. He has downplayed traffic congestion concerns, noting the facility use would be between 12 and 2 p.m. for Friday prayers and for Ramadan programs after 7 p.m.

Three pro-mosque demonstrators showed up late in the event and stood on the outskirts of the group carrying their own signs which read: "Islam Loves You" "We support the mosque" and "What is this really about?"

Police broke up a heated argument between the three, including one man carrying a copy of the Koran, and the much larger group of anti-mosque demonstrators. All were advised that everyone had a right to free speech and the event continued without further incident.

John Walker, a 3-year converted Muslim, argues his point to a homeowner.

Rossi — who said she comes from mixed Muslim-Catholic parentage — noted there are already two mosques in Sterling Heights for Muslims to worship at in the city.

"If I wanted to live next to a Speedway or a McDonald's I would have done that," said Rossi. "There are plenty of empty buildings and spaces in Sterling Heights. Why not use one of them?"

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said he came out Saturday because of the very controversial issue in his community.

"I am not expressing I am for or against the plan," said Taylor. "But as you can see, many of our 132,000 residents are very passionate about it and concerned on how it may impact them."

Taylor was approached Saturday by several residents asking why he or the city council didn't intercede in the plan.

"We have a process in our town and it is not something for the council to vote on but is to be decided by the planning commission," Taylor said. "I also support the rights of everyone in the matter.

"How ever this turns out, I expect there will be lawsuits and as a spokesperson for the city, I don't want to be seen as favoring one view over the other."

Mary Scott was one of several people circulating petitions to be submitted to urge planners not to exercise a special land use provision for the site. Heidi Gates, who rode to the event on her bicycle from her nearby subdivision, said she was among those who feared it would add too much traffic to the area.

"I have teenage drivers in my family and fear for their safety," said Gates. "If it was a Catholic church, I would feel the same way."

The next City Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for September 10.

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