What really happened with the Mosque vote
Last night, the proposed mosque on 15 Mile Road was rejected by the planning commission. Sterling Heights City Planner Donald Mende made a presentation that recommended against granting the special land use variance, and the committee voted it down. A crowd of hundreds was recorded on several cellphone videos cheering and singing ‘God Bless America’ in celebration of the vote.
Already, questions have arisen about the legality of the vote and the apparent reversal of Mr. Mende’s opinion on the subject compared to his stance at the previous meeting. Rumors of a lawsuit by the petitioners are circulating.
I found what I saw of last evening’s parking lot demonstration disgusting and shameful. I find it very difficult to believe that a crowd of that size really turned up just to protest a traffic, parking, and land use issue when reports of fights breaking out and assaults against women wearing hijabs have come to light.
That being said, it is important to consider the facts of what was said in the meeting by the City Planner. This Special Approval Land Use was rejected for technical reasons, and he spelled those reasons out very clearly in his presentation. Below is a transcript of his final summation of the issues taken from video of last night’s meeting:
“Upon review of the revised architectural plans, it’s clear that the proposed Special Approval Land Use does not satisfy the general standards set forth in section 25.02 of the zoning ordinance in the following respects:
The location and height of the proposed building’s twin spires and dome interfere with and discourage the appropriate development and use of adjacent land use and buildings as they both far exceed the height of other structures in the immediate area which are less than thirty feet in height.
The square footage of the proposed building in comparison to the size of the parcel is excessive and not compatible with the established development patterns in this R60 zoning district.
Given the approximately 20,500 square foot size of the proposed building, and the allocation of floor space to ancillary uses, there is a likely shortage of off-street parking when the principal and ancillary uses of the building are combined. Section 23.02 of the zoning ordinance requires additional parking spaces for ancillary uses which are not addressed in the architectural plans.
The scale and height of the proposed building on this site are not harmonious with the character of the existing buildings situated in the vicinity of this R60 zoning district.
The planning commission as part of its review, mandated by the Zoning Enabling Act, is charged with ensuring that a land use is compatible with adjacent uses, it promotes the use of land in a socially and economically desirable manner, and does not overly burden the public services and facilities affected by the proposed land use, and is consistent with the public health, safety and welfare of the community.
Applying these standards, the Planning Department has determined the petitioner has not met these standards. As a result, the administration is recommending that the Planning Commission deny the application for a Special Approval Land Use for the reasons stated in the staff report.”
Emotions, including my own, have run very high concerning this proposed development. My reflexive reaction to people who oppose a new building just because it is a mosque is to decry bigotry and to protest that people’s First Amendment rights are being taken away.
That, however, is separate from the enumerated issues that caused the Planning Commission to reject this development. Mr. Mende very clearly detailed the problems with the architectural plans in his presentation. The height of the building was an issue, and it was not truly addressed by the petitioner when he was given the opportunity to revise his plans. The square footage of the building was an issue considering the totality of the uses possible (i.e. people present) at any given time and the number of off-street parking spaces that were planned for. And finally, the building just plain did not look very much like the rest of the structures in the surrounding area, and that was deemed unacceptable. All of these technical issues are within the purview of the Planning Commission’s consideration.
I, for one, see a need to separate my emotional response to the obvious bigotry on display last evening from my rational response to the technical issues raised. There were really two different things going on here:
- a proposed building was too big and too tall for this particular parcel, and
- a large group of people with apparent prejudices against Muslims allowed their bigotry to be viewed publicly.
One might make the argument that Christian Churches exceed 30 feet in height fairly regularly, and without a full understanding of why that is allowed while the spires on this mosque were not, I cannot comment. All I can say is that it is an interesting point, and I would like to have an explanation of why this is so.
Leaving that aside, though, where do we go from here?
I think it is highly unfortunate that a rowdy, bigoted group of people appeared to “get their way” when a proposed development was rejected on technical issues, but that is what happened. The bigots think they won, and you would have a hard time convincing them otherwise, but the reality is that the petitioners apparently didn’t meet the standards of the zoning laws, and thus the Planning Commission had no choice but to reject the development.
It seems to me that the petitioners could drastically revise their proposed development. If there is a way their true needs can be met with a building that meets the standards set forth in the zoning laws, they may well revisit the issue. I don’t think anything technically precludes them from doing so. Whether or not they want to locate in an area that seems to be so strongly aligned against them, however, is another matter. I wouldn’t blame them if they looked for a new site that wasn’t quite so steeped in bigotry.
In the meantime, a strong emotional case has been built that they have been mistreated by the city. Whether the evidence truly supports that or not may well be for a court to decide, but I would not be surprised to see the city served with a lawsuit over this issue. It is my hope that a court would decide the Planning Commission exercised its duty responsibly and without prejudice, but that is for the discovery process, lawyers, and judge to determine, not a mob in the streets.
In just a couple of short months, the people who were largely responsible for stirring up the latent animosity in this town against people of the Muslim faith will be hoping for your vote in the upcoming election. They are clearly hoping to ride their “victory” on this issue all the way to City Hall and elected office. I hope the majority of voters see through this. We have people who want to sit on City Council, and a man who wants to be your new Mayor, and they have taken a pretty clear anti-Muslim stance.
And finally, the city now has earned a black mark on its reputation for religious tolerance and respect for diversity. This is going to hurt all of us in the long run, and the ownership of the blame for that rests solidly on a few wanna-be City Counselors and an unfortunate, rowdy group of residents. What business would want to locate here after this type of display? It must be a very gloomy day in the parts of the city administration devoted to promoting the city to new businesses and residents.