Residents cited traffic concerns, but city officials said a fear of having Muslims in the community also fueled opposition.
City officials gave their blessing to a small Islamic school in Blaine on Thursday despite opposition by some local residents who said they wanted the plan rejected because of traffic concerns.
But some believe the real issue was fear of having Muslims in the community.
“That’s probably the underlying concern,” said Blaine City Council Member Wes Hovland, who represents the area where the school is located in an office building at 8710 Central Av. NE. “The idea of having people who are different in their beliefs and religion wandering through their neighborhood bothers them, and I don’t understand why,” said Hovland. “I don’t want to make it into this kind of issue. You can’t look at this based on race or religion. But concerns over traffic and property values are all valid reasons.”
Last week, the city’s Planning Commission unanimously recommended the council approve a conditional-use permit for the Darul Arqam Center of Excellence, despite the presence of 25 residents who submitted petitions and testified against the center.
Although the opponents reprised their petition Thursday, council members voted 5-0, with one member abstaining, to approve the permit. Supporters also turned out Thursday, filling the chamber with about 150 people in favor of the school.
Residents on both sides of the issue testified late into the evening, although the council had indicated earlier it might postpone the vote in deference to Hovland, who was out of town Thursday.
Mohammad Zafar, who served in the Marines and is a Muslim, told City Council members: “This is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I want that for my kids.”
But John Blucher, who has lived in the neighborhood 40 years, said he signed the petition against the school because he’s concerned about more traffic and “there are personal issues. … We don’t want an Islamic center in the neighborhood. That’s the personal issue. There doesn’t have to be a reason. It’s just the way the voters feel in the neighborhood. We don’t want a school there. We don’t want a church there. It’s an office building and it should be run as an office building.”During last week’s Planning Commission meeting, Chair Joe Ouellette said his members addressed the traffic issues raised by the residents. “I can’t imagine that there’s going to be a lot of noise or traffic,” he said Thursday.
“It didn’t take very long for me to figure out what the issue really was,” he said. “My sense is that were upset with the issue of having a Muslim center in their community.”
But at Thursday’s meeting, Debbie Delly, a resident opposed to the center, said the “whole neighborhood” shouldn’t be labeled as being prejudiced. “Just like you don’t want to be labeled,” she said. “There was a traffic issue before this ever came up.”
The small Islamic education program has been operating in the office building for nearly a year in space it rented. But the school bought the building in February and plans to operate their program in the building’s lower level while renting out the upper level to businesses, said Samad Syed, the school’s vice president.
Surprised by opposition
The school currently has six students who attend the full-time program during the week and four students who attend the weekend program. In its proposal to the city, officials said they would limit enrollment to 20 students in each of the programs but Syed said school officials hope to keep the limit at 15 students. Since opening the program, the school has received no complaints from neighbors, Syed said. “I was very, very surprised” by the petition opposing it, he said.
He said the school doesn’t intend to expand beyond what’s being proposed and he dismissed the idea it would expand into a mosque, pointing out that the Muslim community already has mosques nearby in Fridley and Columbia Heights.
In an interview before the City Council meeting, Mayor Tom Ryan pointed out that some residents were riled up more than five years ago when a Muslim charter school moved into the community. “It’s all fear,” he said.
But school officials invited residents into the school so everyone could get acquainted. There were no problems after that, he said.
Ryan said residents who are opposed to this latest proposal should give the new school a chance, too. “I’ve eaten dinner with them. They are our neighbors, our attorneys, engineers, our dentists. ... I’m not afraid of my dentist even though I don’t like going to him.”