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updated: 8/6/2013 12:38 PM

Des Plaines rejects Muslim group's request

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Despite the threat of a lawsuit, the Des Plaines City Council Monday night rejected a Bosnian Muslim group's request to allow a religious center in a part of town zoned for manufacturing.

The American Islamic Center's proposal to convert two connected one-story office buildings at 1645 Birchwood Ave. into a prayer hall/community center with classrooms, areas for performing arts, offices and eating space was denied last month by the city's community development committee despite the plan commission's earlier recommendation of approval.

The Des Plaines location would have been the sixth Bosnian Islamic center in the region, with other centers located in Northbrook, two in Chicago, and one in the Southwest suburbs.

The city would have had to change the existing zoning of the 1.8-acre property from general manufacturing to institutional zoning where places of worship are permitted. The site was previously occupied by an insurance company but has remained vacant for more than two years.

Tony Peraica, a Chicago attorney representing the American Islamic Center, implored aldermen to reconsider their earlier vote, saying any protracted litigation would cost the city a substantial amount of money.

Peraica said recent lawsuits by religious groups denied zoning changes to allow their institutions and places of worship in DuPage County have not gone favorably for the government. DuPage County recently was ordered to pay $445,000 and approve the zoning application of Irshad Learning Center, while in a separate case the county entered into a consent decree granting the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs' zoning map amendment application.

"It is clear that the denial of the map amendment application filed by American Islamic Center is in violation of the federal laws," Peraica said. He added that the center's zoning map amendment request is in keeping with the city's own 2007 comprehensive plan, which calls for that property to be zoned mixed residential use in future under which religious institutions would be allowed.

Aldermen previously expressed concern over the loss of property tax revenue from the parcel if it were zoned for a religious purpose. The property generated $95,000 in property taxes in 2013, according to the city.

Peraica said the current property owner plans to demolish the buildings and lease it as a parking lot if the Islamic center's zoning request is not approved.

"It will not be in the best interest of the city of Des Plaines, from a legal, fiscal, marketing and public relations or in any other way, if you maintain your current position and not reconsider," he said. "The federal court will mandate approval of the zoning map amendment application, and the city taxpayers will be saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees and settlement payouts."

Representatives from a couple of manufacturing businesses within the industrial park raised concerns over traffic and overflow cars from the proposed center.

The building capacity can accommodate 180 worshippers, which exceeds the requirements of the congregation whose membership is 160 people. The site has 118 spaces for the center's anticipated use, which would be heavier during Friday afternoon congregational prayers. There also is sufficient on-street parking to handle any overflow of cars, which at peak time could require roughly 145 spaces, city officials have said.

Scott Luedke of Pexco Custom Plastic Extrusion said his business receives a heavy load of delivery truck traffic seven days a week. "If they are not able to get in and out of our business, our customers will leave and we will leave," he said.

Safety also is a huge concern with children attending the center potentially being in danger of being run over by trucks, he added.

"It will be an absolute traffic nightmare," he said. "We wouldn't be good neighbors to them. We have a business to run."

Alderman Mark Walsten, in whose 6th Ward the Islamic center wishes to locate, said he still doesn't see that site as the proper place for the mosque.

The vote was again 5-3 to reject the zoning change.

"We are just disappointed," said Vernes Dervovic, a center member.

Peraica promised legal action after the vote.

"A lawsuit will be filed, soon," Peraica said.

He said he would like to work with the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group that has successfully fought similar cases of zoning denial for Islamic institutions in DuPage County.

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