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Planning Commission rejects mosque’s land use proposal

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published September 11, 2015


At a packed Sept. 10 meeting, the Sterling Heights Planning Commission unanimously denied a special approval land use request for a mosque on 15 Mile Road.

According to city officials, the Sterling Heights Planning Commission has the final say on the matter. During the meeting, City Planner Don Mende recommended that the city deny the application for a special approval land use, citing concerns over building size and nonconformity to the residential district.

“The structure would dominate the visual landscape,” he said.

On Aug. 13, the Planning Commission listened to details about the proposal, through which the petitioner sought to put a 20,500-square-foot mosque on 15 Mile Road, between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive. According to the city, the mosque would have belonged to the American Islamic Community Center, which is currently based in Madison Heights.

But the commission delayed a decision until September, and it invited the applicant to work out building issues with the city’s planning office, particularly issues related to the proposed mosque’s height.

On Sept. 10, Mende said the mosque’s revised plan reduced the height of two spires by nine feet, from 66 feet tall to 57 feet. However, he said the revised plan also increased the height of the mosque’s dome by seven feet, from 58 feet to 65 feet.

Within the R-60 residential district that the mosque proposal sought, the height restriction for homes is 30 feet, officials said.

In his presentation, Mende said the mosque plan was nonconforming with its surroundings, and he focused on its overall size. He also said the building would have had a lecture hall and would have featured other ancillary uses that could have required additional parking needs.

In response, applicant Jaafar Chehab, from the AICC, said his group played within the rulebook and “compromised across the board.” He said not allowing the mosque to be built is a violation of his constitutional rights, citing the First and Fourteenth amendments.

“The Constitution will prevail,” he said. “We have no doubt that justice will prevail in this case.”

Sterling Heights resident Kenyon Cleghorn said he lives near the proposed site and he agreed with Mende’s recommendation to deny the proposal. He said he didn’t see any improvements with the revised proposal’s building height, and he also said residents who like to sit outside and watch the sunrise or sunset would have their views blocked.

In an emailed city statement, Mayor Michael Taylor said Sterling Heights continues to welcome diversity. He said the Planning Commission considered the mosque application “based on objective land use criteria and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant.”

“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.

Taylor also said the city will “continue to foster faith-based inclusiveness and understanding with local partners,” and he cited the city’s 2030 Vision Statement, which calls for “a vibrant, inclusive community.”

“Inclusiveness will continue to be a guiding principle in all that we do,” the statement reads.

Throughout parts of August and September, supporters and opponents of the mosque proposal spoke at public meetings. In addition, two outdoor protests against the proposed development drew hundreds of people in late August, Sterling Heights police said.

Mosque proposal supporters touted their constitutional rights to practice their religion, and they praised the mosque idea as convenient and a platform for cultural understanding and diversity.

Critics, including homeowners who live near the site, panned the proposal due to concerns about traffic, falling property values, its presence in a residentially zoned area and neighborhood conformity issues.

During a Sept. 1 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, Sterling Heights resident Ibrahim Elzhenni identified himself as an AICC board member. He described his group as a nonprofit religious organization that is currently based in Madison Heights and has been operating for more than 10 years.

He said its mission is to perpetuate social, moral and religious standards of Muslims in the community.

“We intend to build the bridges with the neighboring communities,” he said. “We will remain open to channels of dialogue to learn about each other. We invite those who have doubts to come and meet us, and we will do the same things.”

At the same meeting, Sanaa Elias, a candidate and challenger for City Council in the upcoming election, disputed any framing of the development’s opposition as coming from hateful motivations. She said people should “debate the issue, not the people.”

“These people have a legitimate reason why they don't want any church structure or mosque structure in their community,” she said. “It's a very small area compared to the size of the building. It doesn’t conform to the neighborhood. ... The Planning Commission has declined things like this in the past, and they did not call it or negate it as hate or anything to do with religion. ”

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