Chicago Tribune: DuPage County to consider controversial zoning change

DuPage is considering amending its zoning laws to prevent religious organizations from opening facilities in unincorporated residential areas. Muslim groups say it’s directed at them, but county says it’s not.

While a national debate over a proposed Islamic center near ground zero in Manhattan has intensified in recent weeks, so has a similar controversy over Islamic centers in DuPage County.

County zoning meetings have turned heated lately as residents have spoken out against Muslim groups seeking permits to open religious facilities or expand services near West Chicago and Willowbrook.

The tense hearings come just a few months after an Islamic group filed a federal lawsuit against the county, alleging discrimination in the rejection of a zoning proposal for an Islamic educational center and place of worship near Naperville.

Now, the county is hoping changes to zoning laws will head off similar controversies in the future. This week, the Zoning Board will debate a proposed zoning amendment that would prevent religious organizations from opening facilities in unincorporated residential areas.

The county says the measure is not directed at any specific religious group and its timing is coincidental. But constitutional law experts say the proposed amendment could create further legal trouble for the county under federal statute, while Islamic groups say the measure appears to be in direct response to the lawsuit.

“Given the situation with ground zero (in New York), there’s a growing trend by various right-wing organizations to vilify Islamic organizations, and I don’t think we can take that away from what’s happening in DuPage County,” said Kevin Vodak, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The council filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Irshad Learning Center, which had been proposed for a 2.91-acre site on 75th Street between Wehrli Road and Naper Boulevard in an unincorporated area near Naperville.

The proposed zoning amendment will be discussed Thursday at a Zoning Board hearing. The proposal does not include religious organizations with pending proposals or religious organizations already located in unincorporated residential areas but looking to expand, said Paul Hoss, zoning coordinator for the county.

The measure would not only cover religious institutions, but also cover fraternal organizations, veterans organizations and service clubs, he said. Hoss said several religious organizations in recent years have asked the Zoning Board for permits to open in unincorporated residential areas, citing the need for open land and a road that allows easy access for visitors.

But the proposals have sparked opposition because of a wide range of public concerns, including parking, light, noise and septic systems, he said.

“They have infrastructure needs that aren’t as readily available in residential areas of DuPage County,” Hoss said.

If the proposed zoning amendment passes, it would be difficult for Islamic groups to prove it explicitly discriminates against their religious freedom, said Sheldon Nahmod, a constitutional law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

But religious groups could find recourse in a federal statue passed in 2000 that bars governmental bodies from imposing land-use regulations that “burden” religious institutions unless they can prove the measure is the “least restrictive means” of furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” Nahmod said.

“Is there the possibility of some serious problems with this in the future? Sure,” Nahmod said. “The issue is going to be: ‘What happens when this ordinance is being applied?'”