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Opposition to Howard County Islamic center strong at meeting

Residents of western Howard County said Tuesday they are concerned about traffic and septic problems that could result from plans by the Dar-us-Salaam Muslim community to develop the former Woodmont Academy property into an Islamic community center.

In addition, residents voiced concerns about the size and scope of a development they believe would change the rural character of the western end of the county.

“I don’t care if it’s a mega-church or a mega-Starbucks, we just can’t support that size,” Glenwood resident Heidi Gaasch said after an informational meeting at Glenelg High School.

Gaasch was one of about 325 people to attend the meeting,  organized by County Council member Greg Fox and county Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin to explain the process Dar-us-Salaam would follow to develop the property.

Dar-us-Salaam is considering a move from College Park to the 66-acre Woodmont Academy property in Cooksville. Officials with the Muslim community agreed to purchase the property for about $8 million, but the sale has not been finalized.

McLaughlin said Tuesday she has only met with the group twice to discuss the approval process and that no plans have been filed with the county.

Fox, the council representative from District 5, which encompasses all of western Howard County, said council members were not contacted by Dar-us-Salaam until Nov. 11, at the Howard County Muslim Council’s 10th anniversary dinner, about the proposal.

“What we’ve seen is really what’s been in the paper, that’s it,” Fox said.

A nearly 800-family Muslim community, Dar-us-Salaam is looking to relocate its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Al-Huda school and its community center activities to the Cooksville site.

Cooksville resident Mark Haney said Tuesday that traffic is his major concern with the proposal. An avid cyclist and runner, Haney said traffic along Route 97 is already bad enough.

“Adding more to these small roads can create dangerous situations,” he said.

Located in College Park for the past 14 years, the community and school has outgrown its current facilities, with about 600 students enrolled this year, according to Minhaj Hasan, a member of the community’s board of trustees.

Dar-us-Salaam has a 10- to 15-year plan to develop the Cooksville property to include more educational buildings and a mosque, among other features.

But current conditional uses granted to Woodmont for development would only allow Dar-us-Salaam to operate a school on the property. This approval expires June 2013 if the property is not yet occupied because conditional uses expire two years after being vacated.

If the property is not occupied by June 2013, Dar-us-Salaam or any other group purchasing the land would have to “start over” filing for conditional uses, Fox said.

Woodmont closed in June 2011 due to declining enrollment after eight years in the county. The school moved to Cooksville in 2003 with 246 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, but could not register 160 students for the 2011-2012 school year.

If Dar-us-Salaam plans to file for conditional uses they would have to file a petition with the county hearing examiner, who considers effects to the neighborhood and compliance with the Howard County General Plan in making their decision.

A public hearing is part of the petition process.

An original concept plan for the property by Dar-us-Salaam included three seven-story buildings, a large five-sided mosque, walking and bike paths, and underground parking, but Hasan said those plans have since been changed.

Residents are already organizing to oppose any development at Woodmont and Glenn Moran, a resident of Carriage Mill in Woodbine, said hiring legal counsel is inevitable at this point to fight such a complex issue.

Moran said he is opposed to the development because of its size and that it could cause a “domino effect,” creating a need for other services like gas stations and restaurants in the area.

“It’s going to impact everything,” he said.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) further complicates the Dar-us-Salaam proposal. The act generally prevents local zoning authorities from turning down a land use application by a religious organization because of the applicant’s religious beliefs. Criteria for the conditional use would still apply.

But Fox said interpretation of the law regarding land use is “fluid.”

“It’s still being tested in various aspects and how it applies is being tested,” he said. “It’s not the end-all be-all at the end of the day and that’s where attorneys come into play,” he said.

About 300 to 400 Dar-us-Salaam community members live in Columbia and Ellicott City, with many others residing in North Laurel, Hasan said.

There are about 10,000 Muslims living in Howard County alone and about 200,000 living throughout Maryland, according to Rizwan Siddiqi, president of the Howard County Muslim Council.

Dar-us-Salaam did not have a representative attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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