The former home of a local Catholic school in Cooksville could soon become an Islamic community center, but some area residents say the plans could change the rural face of western Howard County.
The Dar-us-Salaam Muslim community is considering a move from College Park to the Woodmont Academy property as early as August, according to Minhaj Hasan, a member of the community's board of trustees.
Dar-us-Salaam officials have an agreement in place to purchase the Woodmont property, located at 2000 Woodmont Drive, for about $8 million, he said.
Stephen Ferrandi, a principal at KLNB commercial real estate, confirmed that a contract was in place and said Dar-us-Salaam is in its "due diligence period" which includes performing any feasibility studies to determine if the property fits their needs.
Dar-us-Salaam, a nearly 800-family Muslim community, is planning to relocate its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Al-Huda school and its community center activities to the Cooksville area.
Located in College Park for the past 14 years, Hasan said the community and school has outgrown its current facilities, with about 600 students enrolled this year.
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, Hasan said.
An original concept plan for the property included three seven-story buildings, a large five-sided mosque, walking and bike paths, and underground parking, but Hasan said those plans have long since been changed.
"Everything is initial and in flux," he said.
But while the plans are not set in stone, area residents already are concerned about the scope of Dar-us-Salaam's proposal.
"It's an absurd amount of development on a property that is surrounded by farms, is served by country roads and is on well and septic," said David Yungmann, a member of the Carriage Mill Homeowners Association.
A Carriage Mill HOA meeting held about two weeks ago to discuss Dar-us-Salaam's plans attracted about 300 residents, Yungmann said — about 30 times more than the group's typical meeting.
He said there was "tremendous opposition" to Dar-us-Salaam's plans at the HOA meeting.
"They were strongly, strongly opposed and looking for information," he said of community members who attended.
Residents believe projects like the one planned ignore the fact that western Howard County is intended to remain rural through the rural conservation or rural residential zoning that blankets that portion of the county, Yungmann said.
Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county has met with Dar-us-Salaam officials to explain the county zoning process to them. If they want to expand school facilities or construct a mosque, she said, they would have to apply for conditional use zoning.
The first step of the conditional use process requires Dar-us-Salaam to hold a pre-submission community meeting, she said.
Hasan said the project is in the "very preliminary stages" with Dar-us-Salaam working through engineering and feasibility studies.
"Right now we are about a month or two away from filing paperwork with the county," Hasan said.
Yungmann said to use the conditional use process to change the zoning of the property is a detriment to the community because of environmental, infrastructure and traffic concerns.
"The local community just really has that dumped on them," he said.
Woodbine resident Vicky Cutroneo attended the first HOA meeting and started a Facebook group, "Preserve the Woodmont Academy land," shortly after.
As of earlier this week, the group had more than 2,600 members; Cutroneo invited just 75 people to join after the meeting.
"I am really surprised at the rate it grew," Cutroneo said. "Every neighborhood is energized about it."
Both Cutroneo and Yungmann said religion has played no part in their opposition to the plans.
"It's not to them, it's to the sheer size of it," Yungmann said, referring to the community opposition.
Hasan declined to give details about the community's fundraising for the $8 million needed to purchase the property, but said it is under way.
After eight years in Howard County, the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Woodmont Academy closed in June 2011 due to declining enrollment. The school moved to Cooksville in 2003 with 246 students, but could not register 160 students for the 2011-2012 school year.