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Proposed Muslim community center in western Howard to be debated again

Proposed Muslim community center in western Howard to be debated again
Residents against the Woodmont Academy development stand and cheer during an April 8, 2013, hearing held by the Howard County Planning Board at Glenelg High School. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

Hearings about a controversial proposal for an Islamic community center in western Howard County will resume Tuesday night, after a county land-use judge approved the project with strict conditions in May. The decision has been appealed, and the group proposing the center will again debate surrounding residents about its merits.

Dar-us-Salaam, a Muslim congregation based in College Park, hopes to build a mosque, religious school, daycare center and residential facilities for staff on a 65-acre plot of land in Cooksville, which used to be the site of a private Catholic school called Woodmont. Dar-us-Salaam members say their 800-family community has outgrown their current location and needs room to expand.

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Some Cooksville residents, meanwhile, say they are concerned that the center would change the character of their rural neighborhood. They argue that traffic from the development would worsen congestion along Frederick Road and that lights and noise associated with the center would spook horses at nearby horse farms.

For more than a year, many of them have joined together to push back against the proposal as a group, called the Residents for the Responsible Development of Woodmont.

In summer 2013, the RRDW group claimed one victory when Dar-us-Salaam decided to withdraw its request for a zoning change during the comprehensive zoning process that would have made it easier for the center to be approved.

Because a mosque, school and staff residences are not permitted as a matter of right on the tract of land where Dar-us-Salaam hopes to build its community center, the congregation has had to request a conditional use from the county.

On May 15, Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre granted the request, writing that "although there are some 300 acres in agricultural preservation and an important thoroughbred operation in the 'neighborhood,' this neighborhood is bordered by I-70, developed with a wide range of non-agricultural use, including the permitted institutional use of the property, and host to a yearly county fair attracting tens of thousands of attendees [a reference to the Howard County Fair, which takes place down the road at the Howard County Fairgrounds].

"The area is heterogeneous in its land use and character," LeFaivre wrote, concluding that the impact of any adverse effects from the development would not be greater in Cooksville than in another place with the same zoning.

In granting the request, however, LeFaivre added 13 conditions for Dar-us-Salaam to follow, including a ban against amplified outdoor sound, lighting beyond what is required by the county and a requirement to reduce activity at the center during the week of the Howard County Fair. She also denied the groups' request for staff residences on the property.

LeFaivre's decision has been appealed, and the case now moves to the Board of Appeals, a five-member, quasi-judicial group of citizens appointed by the County Council to make zoning decisions.

Since the hearing examiner's decision, Dar-us-Salaam has updated its request to remove a proposed second entrance to the site, as well as reduce the size and density of the residences. In a Sept. 17 report, the county's Department of Planning recommended granting the updated request.

The first hearing begins Tuesday night at 6 p.m., with continuation dates scheduled for Oct. 16, 23 and 28.

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