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Sterling Hts. panel rejects proposed mosque on 15 Mile

Robert Snell and Candice Williams

Sterling Heights — City planning commissioners unanimously denied a request Thursday to build a proposed mosque, after an official said it would not fit in with surrounding properties.

The 9-0 vote followed a months-long controversy that exposed a rift between civil rights activists and residents concerned about traffic congestion, lowered property values and the appropriateness of a mosque in a neighborhood. Some area Muslims said the complaints masked an anti-Muslim bias.

It was unclear late Thursday whether the developer would alter the proposal to build a 20,500 mosque on residential land in a neighborhood on the north side of 15 Mile Road between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive.

The rejection triggered a brief, spirited, but otherwise peaceful celebration by several hundred people gathered outside City Hall, which could not accommodate the overflow crowd. Some chanted “God Bless America” and booed Muslim and civil rights leaders as they left City Hall, separated by police barricades.

The developer, Jaafar Chehab, director of the American Islamic Community Center in Madison Heights, blasted city Planner Don Mende, who urged commissioners to vote against a request for a special land use permit to build the mosque in a neighborhood.

“I cannot see a reason besides public pressure to deny us,” Chehab, a Sterling Heights resident, told planning commissioners. “The majority has the ability to oppress the minority. We’re the minority. To deny us, I feel it’s unconstitutional.”

There was no discussion among commissioners beyond Mende's comments.

The mosque proposal will not be forwarded to City Council for a vote because the developer was requesting a special land use. The project will die, at that location, barring a new submission or substantial change in the plan.

Mayor Michael Taylor said the commission’s vote was based on objective criteria, not emotion.

“Sterling Heights has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the city, including a Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple and two existing mosques,” Taylor said in a statement.

The multi-million dollar project, a 20,500-square-foot mosque on 4­1/2 acres of largely undeveloped property, is too tall, too large and not harmonious with neighboring properties, Mende said.

He urged rejection of the mosque despite Chehab reducing the height of twin spires by 9 feet. The towers still would be 27 feet taller than the maximum allowed by the city.

And a 65-foot dome would “far exceed the height of other structures” nearby, Mende said.

“The scale and height are not harmonious with existing buildings,” Mende told commissioners, adding he was concerned the proposed mosque lacked enough parking.

A member of Chehab’s team said they were open to reducing the size of the mosque and lowering the height of the towers.

Find another location, neighbor Kenyon Cleghorn said.

He lives within 500 feet of the proposed site and said a six-story mosque would block views of the sunset and sunrise and disrupt life in the neighborhood.

“I’m asking you not to pave our paradise by putting up a parking lot,” Cleghorn said, paraphrasing lyrics from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.

“Declining this particular location is not saying no to the mosque,” Cleghorn added. “It’s saying yes to the mosque, but no to the current location.”

The property is zoned single-family residential, but approval can be made for a house of worship.

While residents have spoken out against the plans for the 20,500-square-foot mosque, civil rights activists are claiming anti-Muslim bias.

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, a poster circulating on social media asked for those in opposition to attend the Planning Commission session. Some residents have argued that the mosque is not in the best interest of the city, citing traffic congestion and lowered property values as a concern. A protest last month drew more than 200 people.

Recently, Dearborn attorney Tarek Baydoun, who is Muslim, urged residents to reconsider their position.

Civil rights activists and others have called opposition to the proposal bias, noting that there had been anti-Muslim comments made recently by residents during two city government meetings.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

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