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Mosque debate not over

Center’s opponents take matter to court

POSTED: March 10, 2010 8:30 a.m.
 
A recent decision by the Forsyth County commission has heightened debate over plans for a mosque in south Forsyth.

The commission voted 5-0 on March 4 to deny request by the Hamzah Islamic Center to hold a public hearing about sewer requirements.

The hearing would have reviewed a Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision to deny a sewer variance for a private septic tank.

In the meantime, opponents of the 25,000-square-foot mosque building, which the commission unanimously approved in October, are challenging the matter in court.

Val Knudson with the Tidwell Road Neighborhood Residents said the organization has many concerns about the decision to allow the center.

“We feel that the commissioners made an incorrect decision to begin with in allowing this,” Knudson said.

Among the concerns cited in the group’s writ of certiorari, or petition to Forsyth County Superior Court, are traffic, underestimation of the congregation’s size and the notification for an August public meeting.

The matter has been assigned to Superior Court Judge David Dickinson. A hearing date has not been set.

Tareef Saeb, chairman of Hamzah, said he had heard some residents were pursuing litigation.

“They can go ahead,” Saeb said. “... It does not really impact us anything.

“The county has granted us permission and we’re going with the construction plans and all that. Nothing can stop the development of what we’re trying to do.”

Knudson said the group, which gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition opposing the mosque, is moving forward on its own time and money.

“This was just a very poor piece of property for the size of a mosque that they want,” she said of the 12-acre site on Tidwell.

“The question of it being a mosque really doesn’t play into it. We would feel the same way if it were a Baptist church, a Lutheran church, anything else. It just is the wrong type of thing to go in on that property.”

She said Tidwell is used only by people who live on it, and this type of center “is like dropping a church in the middle of a subdivision,” something she didn’t think the commissioners had considered.

The commission’s decision in October was unpopular with Tidwell Road residents. The land is zoned agricultural, which allows for churches.

In fact, as Commissioner Jim Harrell noted, a church can be allowed on any zone in the county.

At the October hearing, he addressed a crowd of unhappy residents, saying the commission had no option but to approve the request. The site is in his district.

Since that time, Harrell has asked staff to consider adding some requirements in the county’s unified development code to make it “perhaps similar to what the city of Alpharetta has.”

Alpharetta code allows churches in residential areas only on a conditional basis.

County planning director Jeff Chance said Tuesday the department is looking into it.

On March 4, Harrell said the board agreed that public sewer was the best option.

Sewer had been one of the issues during the heated October hearing, in which Harrell asked center officials to look into a septic system.

Saeb said the mosque followed this suggestion in seeking a private system, which he said would also be less expensive.

Harrell said he had mentioned that at the request of a neighbor who no longer has those concerns.

“I don’t think anyone objected to having the sewer put in,” he said regarding the ZBA decision.

Saeb said the center will be able to access public sewer, but will have to cross through some lots and cut down some trees, which the mosque plans to replace.

“At the end of the day, we certainly suffered a delay and we actually had to pay for the soil test,” he said. “But that’s pretty much all that it does for us.”

Knudson said her group “did not want them to go septic” since the center did not indicate it had a reserve field.

She added that the neighborhood questioned whether the center’s plans for private or public sewer were “properly sized” based on their projections of the size of their congregation.
 

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