Despite strong opposition from nearby residents, the Forsyth County commission approved plans for an Islamic center on 12 acres in south Forsyth.
Plans call for a 25,000-square-foot mosque with 150 parking spaces, as well as a gym, playground and picnic areas. The Tidwell Road site is on land zoned agricultural, which allows for churches.
The property is in Commissioner Jim Harrell’s district. Some in the audience gasped in disbelief when he moved to approve the request.
“I have consulted at length with staff and counsel,” Harrell said. “I don’t believe the board has any option but to approve [the request].
"While I know many neighbors to this project may be disappointed, I hope that they will consider that the applicant has offered conditions on their own volition. We had no power to force them to do that.”
Before the vote, residents voiced various concerns about the center, including traffic and that it’s an inappropriate use of the property.
Thomas Pappagallo, who lives less than a mile from the site, said he was concerned the mosque would lower property values and compound problems in the area.
“We have sex crime. We have an issue with gang activity,” he said. “We struggle with a lot of things in our area and this is just adding to the problems and issues that we have.”
Pappagallo said the center would also create various activities, such as outdoor sporting events and a school, that the roads can’t support. He said residents don't understand why that location was chosen since it has about four subdivisions.
“Another subject I’d like to stress is the investment for the county,” he said. “We struggle with a dirt road that’s down the street from us that we’d like to have developed eventually, but we can’t have that developed if we have another facility that’s in our area that’s really not supporting us in taxes.”
Pappagallo said the mosque would also draw traffic from Fulton County.
Jennifer Howard spoke on behalf of Quail Ridge and adjacent neighborhoods. Plans show a seating area with capacity for 700 people, she said, and the facility would increase traffic.
“This is entirely too large for this narrow two-lane road,” she said. “Tidwell is a neighborhood street with no sidewalks and a great deal of pedestrian traffic. It has sharp 15-mile-an-hour turns, hills and valleys with virtually no sight distance.”
Attorney George Butler, who represents the center, told commissioners the group wants to move to a more peaceful location than their current site on Union Hill Road.
He said the center would have to get site plan approval for additional amenities such as a gym or day care.
“This is not a discretionary zoning or conditional use permit decision by the board,” he said. “It’s merely a sketch plat approval. A highly technical, paint-by-the numbers exercise ... the [unified development code] has since been changed to provide that new kids on the block like Hamzah cannot get permission for any type of school other than Sunday school by a mere sketch plat approval.”
He said he recently received a letter from Pappagallo’s attorney asking for conditions that are “over the top and really can’t be taken seriously especially given the 11th hour arrival.”
Butler said those conditions include the stipulation that Hamzah pays neighbors “$20,000 per 24-inch tree that may happen to die for any cause within three years of construction if its within 50 feet of the common boundary.”
The letter also asked that the mosque’s Sunday school classes for children be allowed only between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Fridays, he said.
According to the application, the center plans to use county sewer service. Harrell asked center officials if they would look into possibly using a septic system.
During a break after the vote, Harrell came down and spoke with residents about the matter. Some challenged his decision to approve the request and one woman vowed to make sure he does not get re-elected next year.