The Doings Hinsdale: Lawsuit urged after DuPage board spurns mosque request

For a second time in less than 2 1/2 years, the DuPage County Board has turned down a proposed mosque, heeding objections from neighbors and the recommendation of its Zoning Board of Appeals, but countering the stance of its own development committee.

The board Tuesday voted down 15-3 a request for a conditional use permit from the Islamic Center of the Western Suburbs, which wanted to open a worship center in an unoccupied residence on Army Trail Road near West Chicago. Neighbors of the site and others opposed the application, asserting the facility would bring a dangerous volume of new traffic to the area and casting doubt on the security of its septic system.

The case bears assorted similarities to the Irshad Learning Center request, which also was rejected by the board in January 2010 after the development committee recommended approval but the zoning panel declined to support it. That application also sought a permit for an Islamic worship facility, on the site of a vacant home along 75th Street just east of Naperville that backs up to a residential area.

The Irshad matter is now in federal court, and the ICWS case could be headed there as well.

This week’s vote drew out about 50 speakers who addressed the board, with supporters of the plan slightly outnumbering opponents. Those in favor of the petition noted that the proposal met all of the county’s guidelines and said Muslims, who are called to congregate for prayer five times daily, need worship space near where they live. Traffic consultant Luay Aboona said his study of the site found the center would increase traffic by no more than .6 percent, and most of those new vehicles would be on the road in off-peak periods.

Those against the plan said they expected the facility would violate their right to enjoyment of their neighborhood, and a woman who lives behind the center said she and her husband have been subjected to angry outbursts from center members.

Another neighbor, County Board candidate Kevin Wiley, reiterated in a prepared statement the opposition he has voiced in numerous appearances before the board and ZBA over the past three years.

“To say it’s been contentious is an understatement,” Wiley said.

County Board member Jim Zay, whose district includes the proposed site, repeated the assertion he made in the Irshad case, that the question isn’t about Islam.

“This is not about religious institutions,” said Zay, who was joined by fellow District 6 board members Dirk Enger and Bob Larsen in opposing the request. “This is about property rights. It’s about zoning.”

South Elgin resident Constance Gavras, who implored the board to turn down the Irshad permit and has asserted that American Muslims are determined to implement shariah law throughout the U.S., said the ICWS facility would “become another religious compound” but insisted that property rights, and not religion, is her concern.

“That narrative has become very, very boring to me,” Gavras said.

Development committee member Grant Eckhoff, one of three board members who voted for the permit, said property rights apply to all who own real estate.

“The petitioner has a right to depend on what our existing zoning ordinance is,” Eckhoff said. “This isn’t a policy issue where we have some amorphous rules that we’re supposed to be thinking about.”

He said placing the center’s exit and entry on a major road was precisely for the protection of the nearby homeowners.

“If we don’t allow people to put places of assembly on arterial roads, where else are they going to go?” Eckhoff said.

Committee chairman Tony Michelassi, who represents Naperville and the rest of District 5, stressed that the rights of all property owners warrant the respect of policy makers. He said the three-level approval process ensures adequate vetting of petitioners’ requests and expressed hope that petitions won’t routinely be turned into battlegrounds among the advisory bodies.

Elmhurst lawyer Mark Daniel, who took over representation of ICWS when former Naperville attorney Kevin Gallaher moved out of the area a year ago, said the case is not closed.

“ICWS brought me in to make sure that the application was in perfect condition, and they’ve done as much as they could to make sure they get approval, and they didn’t get it. That was the first prong. Now we’ll move on to the second prong,” said Daniel, who recommended that his clients initiate legal action.

A suit, he said, would be based on the assertion that the rejection violated provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and the organization’s due process and equal protection rights under federal law, in addition to assurances contained in state legislation. The County Board, he noted, is legally obligated to adhere to its own zoning codes.

“They have a pretty certain right to obtain a permit in this case,” Daniel said.

The Irshad case was taken to the appeal level two years ago, with the Council on Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago taking up representation of the center’s board. Kevin Vodak, litigation director for CAIR-Chicago, said Tuesday that he and the county’s attorney are working under a June 15 deadline for gathering depositions in the case.

Daniel, who predicted “the breadth and depth of falsehoods” put forth by the opponents would come out in the course of a lawsuit filed by ICWS, anticipates Irshad will prevail as well.

“I’d be surprised if the county got away without a judgement against it,” he said.