DuPage says mosque can't exceed height limits

 
 
Updated 2/8/2011 8:47 PM

A mosque still might be constructed in southeast DuPage County, but supporters say it could end up missing a key religious component.

The DuPage County Board on Tuesday postponed a final decision on the Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America's request for a conditional-use permit. However, board members then voted 15-2 to deny a height variance request for the proposed mosque along 91st Street near Willowbrook.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Dr. Abdulgany Hamadeh, MECCA president, said he was disappointed. Not being allowed to have a 69-foot dome and 79-foot minaret means the mosque, if built, would look like "any other building," he said.

"It wouldn't look like a mosque," Hamadeh said. "It's like building a church without a steeple."

The mosque would be part of a 57,000-square-foot structure that would include a weekend school and a recreation center.

Mark Daniel, the group's attorney, said the 15-2 vote to reject the height variance is "very difficult to accept." He said two of the three existing religious structures in the area exceed the county's height restriction of 36 feet.

"From a legal perspective, we think the decision is erroneous," said Daniel, adding the group will evaluate how it's going to respond.

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Board members who opposed the height variance said MECCA representatives failed to show the denial would result in a legal hardship.

"I took every transcript of these proceedings and went through them," board member Jeff Redick said. "I'm hard-pressed to find where they presented any evidence to support the legal standard that they have to."

Board member Dirk Enger said the height variance would be "asking too much" of the neighborhood. "It has nothing to do with religion," he said.

Daniel sees it differently.

"It has now turned into a religious issue with this particular denial," Daniel said. "It is unfortunate. Religious land uses in this county have had an uphill battle."

On Tuesday night, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a written statement calling the county board's decision "unacceptable."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"While certain county board members claim this is not about religion, we demand that the county reflect this in its actions," said Kevin Vodak, a staff attorney.

Council officials said no other religious institution before MECCA is known to have faced the height restriction.

"Whether today's vote serves as an example of general religious oppression or a strike against Muslim worshippers everywhere on the basis of their beliefs, governmental conduct that needlessly denies the benefit of religious symbols or forces the sacrifice of common improvements in order to utilize these symbols cannot be tolerated," said Christina Abraham, the chapter's civil rights director.

The chapter already has filed a federal lawsuit against DuPage claiming that Irshad Learning Center's constitutional rights were violated when that group's proposal to build an educational center near Naperville was rejected.

But when it comes to the MECCA proposal, neighbors opposed to the plan insist they are motivated by concerns about traffic, flooding and project density.

"We have heard from Mr. Daniel about restricting religious freedom and about fear," resident Sam Cornett said. "This is not about restricting religious freedom. It never has been. It never will be."

Resident Greg Prosen agreed. He said the project is simply too large for the nearly five-acre parcel.

"It's a beautiful building," Prosen said. "It just would be better served on a larger piece of property away from residences."

Still, Daniel said the size of the structure is "well within" the county's zoning code. In fact, he argues the county has no basis to reject the conditional-use permit now that the height variance has been denied. He said the project is "100 percent code compliant."

Officials said the vote on the conditional-use permit was delayed because the county might do a traffic study. The county board's development committee is slated to review the issue next week.

In the meantime, Hamadeh said MECCA will try to address neighbors' concerns.

"We are there to have a positive impact on the neighborhood because it is our neighborhood," Hamadeh said. "We live in the area. We want to improve the neighborhood and provide the services that this neighborhood deserves."