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Mosque plan called too large for rural Howard County

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Leaders of the Dar-us-Salaam community in College Park have been looking for years for a new home, a place for a school and a mosque close enough to be convenient for members living in several counties. They've scouted hundreds of spots and looked closely at a handful, and now they think they've found what they've been looking for in the rural western section of Howard County. 

The 66-acre former home of the Woodmont Academy, a Catholic school in Cooksville, looks just right to the Muslim community leadership, with buildings already in place and plenty of undeveloped land for parking and a new mosque to accommodate thousands of worshippers in the decades to come. To many of the people who live nearby, however, it seems all wrong, a poor fit for a rural community weary of battling what they consider encroachments on the quiet way of life they've chosen.

Some remember the "Stop Woodmont Academy" signs sprouting on lawns 12 years ago, when the school staked out a spot in a residential area a few miles from where the project was eventually built on Frederick Road. Now there's a "Preserve the Woodmont Academy Land" Facebook page; a recent routine homeowners association meeting turned into a session on Dar-us-Salaam that drew a couple of hundred people; and residents talk of fighting a project that to them seems too large for an area of horse farms and homes.

"That's not what rural, country land on wells and septic was created for," says David Yungmann, who lives in the Carriage Mill Farms community in Woodbine, about a mile west of the Woodmont site. "We're constantly defending the rural environment, the rural zoning, which is in law."

Minhaj Hasan of Catonsville, a board member and project manager for Al-Huda Inc., which runs Dar-us-Salaam, is aware of the nascent opposition and says the organization's plans may be misunderstood. He says the project is more modest than the rather grandiose descriptions that appeared a few months ago in an Al-Huda newspaper.

"They are rural-type people, they want a quiet place — we understand that," says Hasan, who graduated from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia. "We want to keep it green, we don't want to pave over it."

As residents are taking steps to organize possible opposition, the project is in its early stages.

The corporation has not filed any plans with the county, but Hasan and other representatives have talked with Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin and members of her staff. They have an engineer studying whether the project would work, and they have a contract to buy the property for $8 million, contingent on getting zoning approvals by the spring.

The Dar-us-Salaam community is now trying to raise money to buy the land, pursuing a local, national and international effort, according to the organization's website. Hasan declined to say how close the community is to the goal.

The project was announced in Al-Huda's newspaper, The Muslim Link, in August. The headline said the new center could be the "Largest Islamic Project in America," and the article described plans for "three seven-story buildings" and a five-sided mosque around a circular courtyard. Another Muslim Link article now posted on the "Preserve the Woodmont Academy Land" Facebook page mentions an underground parking garage, and says the project "could change the Western Howard County landscape for years to come." A Muslim Link article last month reported that Dar-us-Salaam was hoping to win approval for a mosque that could accommodate 2,500 to 5,000 people.

"It was kind of shocking," says Vicky Cutroneo of Woodbine, who recently launched the "Preserve" Facebook page that now has more than 2,700 members. She said she launched the page a day after attending a meeting of the nearby Carriage Mill homeowners association last month that drew about 20 times the usual attendance.

The plan, as described in early reports, "seemed absurd for a property zoned rural conservation," says Glenn Moran, who lives in Carriage Mill Farms. "How is our community going to support something like that?"

The articles set off alarm bells among the farms and small residential subdivisions of western Howard County. Zoning rules on that land limit building height to 40 feet, and residents are quick to mention that one of the county's largest churches, if not the largest, Grace Community Church, stands in a more developed area near U.S. 29 in Fulton. The auditorium there seats about 1,000 people.

Hasan, who edits Muslim Link, says in an interview that he actually doesn't know if this would be the largest Islamic project in the country, and plans have been scaled down considerably since the first articles appeared. He said the preliminary concept includes two school buildings, an administration building, a mosque or masjid, and two or three smaller buildings that could be used for maintenance and other purposes.

He says no building would be taller than three stories, and the underground garage has been dropped from the plans. He stands by the description of the mosque as accommodating between 2,500 and 5,000 people but says it would only be full for the main services Friday afternoons, and that size would be "for the ultimate build-out. That's what we want to grow into. That's the whole attraction of this property."

Hasan points out that in terms of the number of buildings and the size of the school, the Dar-us-Salaam project will be no larger than the Woodmont plans approved by the county hearing examiner in 2002, including 13 buildings and a capacity of 1,712 students and teachers. The approved Woodmont plan did not include a building large enough to accommodate 2,500 to 5,000 people at once.

Woodmont's plans raised a stir among residents in 2000 when they were first announced for a 53-acre property at Dorsey Mill Road in Glenwood, about four miles south of the Frederick Road site. "Stop Woodmont Academy" protest signs appeared in front yards and residents formed the Preserve Scenic Glenelg/Glenwood Association to oppose the project.

Eventually, the county defused the conflict by offering Woodmont — which had outgrown its school in Baltimore County — a piece of surplus county land between Frederick Road and Interstate 70 for $1.5 million. Opposition faded, and county records show that no one spoke against the project before the county hearing examiner in 2002.

There was no appeal of the hearing examiner's decision, which approved the project to be completed in four phases, giving dates for each phase to begin. The project stalled in the early stage, as the developer put up a one-story stone building, five smaller "temporary modular" buildings and a small playground.

Last year, after eight years at that location, Woodmont Academy closed. Catholic Review reported last spring that the school had 185 students at the time and was closing because of falling enrollment.

Woodmont's approvals for all four phases have since lapsed, says McLaughlin, the planning director. She says Al-Huda would not need further approvals to operate in the buildings that now exist, but it would have to go before the hearing examiner with a detailed plan if it wants to expand the campus.

Neither Cutroneo nor Yungmann seem reassured to know that Al-Huda's plan is not quite as grand as original reports showed.

"The way these things go, you come in for a little bit, then it's a lot easier to come in and ask for much more," says Yungmann. He says residents have interviewed some lawyers and are in a "wait and see" position, trying to stay informed about Dar-us-Salaam's plans.

"If what they're presenting is not acceptable, we're going to hire an attorney and we're going to fight," he says.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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