Naperville Sun: Rejected Muslim Center Plan Still Alive In Courts

DuPage County officials remain largely mum about the complaint filed April 8 on behalf of a Muslim group denied clearance to open a school and worship site on 75th Street, just beyond Naperville’s eastern border.

But the issue is not dead, nor are its circumstances unique.
Governmental agencies, including the county, sometimes approve zoning exemptions for Muslim and other religious organizations. Sometimes not.

“It depends on the community,” said Kevin Vodak, the attorney at the Chicago office of the Council on American and Islamic Relations who filed the suit on behalf of Irshad Learning Center. “Some communities recognize every right that an Islamic organization has.”

The center was proposed in December 2008, nine months after the organization purchased the 3-acre parcel east of Naper Boulevard and the 3,600-square-foot house and accessory buildings on the lot. The conditional use permit application called for no expansion of the buildings, but the group ultimately wanted to provide 39 parking spaces.

Neighbors objected to the proposal, citing concerns ranging from improper use of the site to late-night light and noise nuisances to increased flooding risk. The seven members of the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted three times against the plan, but the County Board’s development committee repeatedly agreed to support the proposal.

Irshad initially was represented by Naperville attorney Scott M. Day, who argued steadily that the request wasn’t extraordinary in its details.

“We are correct on the law. The ZBA is in error,” Day said during a development committee meeting last October.

He also countered claims that the center would host services in the summer lasting well past midnight in defiance of the 10:30 p.m. limit on the permit application. The prayer portion of Islamic services cannot begin before sunset, and Irshad had agreed to modify the format to meet its own 10:30 p.m. deadline. Day said refusal of the permit would “Deny the Islamic faith the opportunity to worship.

Broad blame

When the full board rejected the permit with a 10-7 vote on Jan. 12, the matter was immediately handed over to CAIR. Vodak submitted the complaint to the eastern division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that religious bias drove the denial.

He said the group followed proper procedures over the 17 months of meetings and hearings that preceded his office being retained.

“Throughout the process, they were attempting to provide (concessions) in the hope of appeasing the neighbors,” Vodak said. “They expended a lot of effort and funds trying to get that done.”

Named in the 49-page complaint are DuPage County, all seven ZBA members, the 10 County Board members who voted against the request, and Chairman Robert Schillerstrom.

The chairman declined to discuss the case until he had been served with the complaint. As of Monday afternoon, that had not happened.

“As a general rule, if you sue somebody, you want to serve them all,” Schillerstrom said last week. “It’s not like we’re dodging service. If they want to serve us, they can just drop it off.”

Others identified in the suit declined to talk about it.

James Healy, John Zediker and Tony Michelassi — the three board members who represent Naperville and the rest of District 5 — voted in favor of the permit and so weren’t included in the suit. They said at the time that their research had led them to believe an appeal would prevail, and that could nullify the conditions development committee chairman Michelassi had tried to add in an effort to satisfy the neighbors.

Following a third ZBA hearing in early December that was designed to address their objections, the neighbors still opposed the plan.

Oppositional discord

Next-door homeowner Peter Poteres, who addressed the county numerous times about the proposal, said he expected the lawsuit.

“I can understand why they did it,” Poteres said Thursday.

He made a point of distancing himself and his neighbors from others who urged the board to turn down the center. Among them were Constance Gavras, a South Elgin coordinator of the anti-Islam organization Act! for America, and the Naperville Tea Party Patriots. The anti-tax group posted its opposition to the center shortly before the board’s vote, and provided a link to excerpts of a letter Poteres had written.

“Some people did get up and speak that weren’t representatives of the neighbors,” Poteres said. “They did not represent the neighbors’ viewpoint, which has not changed.”

Also mentioned in the 11-count complaint is southeast Naperville resident Virginia Petru, an active member of the Naperville Tea Party Patriots. In an e-mail to the County Board just before they voted on the permit, Petru asked the members to seek clearance from the FBI and Homeland Security Department before approving the center, because of suspicions that Irshad could have more than a borrower’s relationship with its mortgage holder, the Alavi Foundation. The Islamic philanthropy is under federal scrutiny for possibly supporting Iran’s nuclear program, but no charges have been filed.

Irshad trustee Mahmood Ghassemi has said the organization, which received a grant in addition to the $300,000 loan, has no other connection with Alavi.

“The fact of the matter is even if the allegation against Alavi is proven correct, it must not reflect on grant recipients, whether Harvard University or Irshad Learning Center,” Ghassemi wrote in an e-mail to The Sun last November.

County officials discounted the relevance of the loan to the permit request, noting that it was a zoning matter.

Standing firm

Two development committee members who initially supported the permit were among those who weighed in against it when the full board voted.

“It was not a vote against anyone’s culture or religion, race,” Rita Gonzalez, a District 1 representative from Addison and one of the defendants, said last week.

Her vote stemmed partly from the neighbors’ continued opposition to the center, and partly from her belief that locating it next to a neighborhood would be intrusive. She said religious institutions are best placed in “an actual church” with sufficient space.

District 6 board member Dirk Enger of Winfield, who also cast contradicting votes at the committee and board levels, agreed. He said several places of worship have been operating in his district, not all of them following proper approval channels.

“It’s something that the county does need to look at … Every religion needs to have a building,” said Enger, who stands by his Irshad vote.

Neighborhood churches

Church zoning was on the minds of several speakers from Enger’s district at last week’s County Board meeting. They implored the board to crack down on what they said were code enforcement lapses that have, among other instances, enabled religious groups to operate in several West Chicago locations.

“I think they know that there are no teeth in these ordinances,” said Maryanne Fox, president of a nearby homeowners’ group. “We are asking for some gumption, not a root canal.”

Owners of one of the locations, an ashram on St. Charles Road, received a conditional use permit in 2006 to operate as a religious institution, according to the board’s communication manager Jason Gerwig.

Of the other four, two have been subjects of investigations that have concluded no religious use or worship is taking place on the sites. The county will be investigating a third one, Gerwig said.

One property on Army Trail Road that is owned by the Islamic Center-Western Suburbs “has been red-tagged for being used as a religious use and is now over at the state’s attorney’s office for further prosecution in court,” Gerwig wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

County planner Paul Hoss said the ICWS has applied for a conditional use permit, as Irshad did.

“It’s the exact same situation,” he said.

Many other religious groups have been permitted to occupy onetime homes. According to the CAIR complaint, there are 23 religious institutions using properties abutting residential areas in unincorporated DuPage. Five church organizations sit within a half-mile radius of the Irshad site.

Hoss said numerous churches in the county “have received zoning relief, either to build their own building or to operate out of a residence.” Among them, he said, is a church in Naperville that moved into a former residence on Hobson Road in the late 1990s and later did the same at a second location, on Wehrli Road.