Muslim prayer center, residents collide near West Chicago
Kevin Wiley has been waiting for Monday for two years.
That's the day when DuPage County's Zoning Board of Appeals opens a hearing into a proposal to convert a house at 28W774 Army Trail Road near West Chicago into the headquarters for the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs.
The leaders of the Muslim group want to turn the house they bought out of foreclosure into a prayer center and food pantry. Neighbors like Wiley want the group to stop using the house for anything other than a residence until the county decides whether to allow a different use.
"First it was the landscaping issues they did without the proper permits that changed the floodplain and caused my basement to flood twice," Wiley said. "The thing that bothers us the most is the constant rotation of different people coming and going every day."
This is the third time the issue has been in front of the county's zoning board. The Islamic Center's new attorney, Kevin Gallaher, said he is aware of the history surrounding the proposal and is hopeful a resolution satisfactory to all sides can be reached.
"There's been some miscommunication along the way on the part of all parties," Gallaher said. "All sides need to come to an understanding as to what the ultimate use of the property will be."
Islamic Center leaders are seeking a "conditional use" permit that will allow them to operate the property as a religious facility. They also are asking for more parking.
"They're trying to convert a residential property into something it wasn't intended to be," said neighbor Ron Cwik.
Adding to the controversy is a private driveway the Islamic Center shares with Ray and Jackie Sitkiewicz. The couple told the county board last month that many times they've found themselves either unable to enter or leave their property because cars of people worshipping at the house five times a day block the drive.
In January, the county cited the Islamic Center's leaders for zoning violations related to parking and non-permitted uses of the property. The state's attorney's office is seeking more than $25,000 in fines it claims the center has racked up since the beginning of the year for failing to comply with the county's orders. But the case was once again held over for another month last week to see what comes out of Monday's meeting, Gallaher said.
Compounding the confusion is the state department of revenue's decision last year to grant a complete property tax exemption for the parcel. That amounts to more than $8,600 off the tax rolls, Wayne Township Assessor Michael Musson said.
Sue Hofer, a spokeswoman for the department, said the decision was based on a recommendation from the county's board of review.
"We have no way of determining local land use," she said. "Our job is to determine whether the use of the property is consistent with the law."
Hofer said the Islamic Center's paperwork was complete and included federal nonprofit documentation.
DuPage Supervisor of Assessments Craig Dovel said that while his office does make a recommendation in conjunction with the board of review, the state is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to grant an exemption. Dovel and Board of Review Chairman Tony Bonavolonta said the county doesn't check for zoning violations before making any recommendations.
"We don't question a religious use," Bonavolonta said. "We just forward that onto the department of revenue."
However, Hofer said the state relies on county officials to make sure a property owner seeking a tax exemption is legitimate.
"They are our eyes and ears on the ground," she said.
Wiley said none of the government agencies are looking out for the residents.
"See? That's insane with the tax exemption," he complained. "By them saying they are using the property for religious purposes, they are admitting to the zoning violations."
The county has been dealing with church-related zoning issues for several years, but the county board rejected a measure that would have imposed significant limitations on locations more than a year ago. The county is being sued by another Muslim organization after a proposal to open a similar prayer center and food pantry near Naperville was rejected recently.
County board member Jim Zay said the issue of zoning for religious facilities in residential areas needs to be addressed.
"It's not about the church, it's about property rights," he said. "People coming into a single-family area have the right to assume it's going to remain a single-family area."