Members of St. Cloud's planning commission will hear testimony today on a proposed mosque, school and retail complex that's facing some opposition from neighbors in a quiet, residential part of the city.
The Islamic Center of St. Cloud has submitted plans for a mosque on land formerly owned by the St. Cloud school district. The project would also include classrooms, a gymnasium and possible retail and office space in a residential area near the city's Schmidt Park, according to planning documents.
The goal is to have a facility big enough to serve about 600 worshippers, said Dean Wick of Outsource Architecture, which is heading the project.
The Islamic Center reached out to neighbors before filing the official paperwork with the city, hosting a community meeting in the neighborhood earlier in the summer to discuss the proposal, Wick said.
"We were able to tweak the plan a little bit, resend it to everybody and get input from them back," Wick added. "The plan that we're presenting is a changed plan from the neighborhood meeting we had initially."
A report by city staff found that some parts of the project, including the proposed commercial development, could have a negative impact by increasing traffic congestion. City staff noted that the retail and office portions of the project aren't consistent with the character of the neighborhood. But they recommend approving the proposal except for the retail, restaurant and office space.
Wick said some aspects of the project may change by today's meeting. He said they're making attempts to ensure the project fits the character of the community.
"We like the earth tones, the browns and stone, and that rustic look," Wick said. "So it's going to fit into the residential neighborhood," he said. "It's not going to be a big purple building or anything like that."
In most other areas of St. Cloud, a religious building wouldn't need to go through the public vetting process, St. Cloud Community Development Director Matt Glaesman said. But the site of the proposed mosque is designated for single-family units.
"For most of our residential zoning district, places of worship are allowed by right, meaning they don't have to go through a public hearing," Glaesman said. "It's just our single family-zoning districts where places of worship have to go through a process."
'SQUARE PEG IN A ROUND HOLE'
There's been opposition to mosques being built in other parts of the country, most famously the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in Manhattan. But opponents of the mosque in St. Cloud said their opposition isn't grounded in religious intolerance.
Gregory Jarrett, a member of St. Cloud Citizens for Reasonable Zoning, a group that opposes the project, said that the city's process to amend the zoning plan hasn't seemed open.
"The only argument we have is very, very simple: Do it the right way, do a real study, do a real impact study, do a real traffic study," Jarrett said. "And if you approve it, good for you -- no one is arguing, no one is jumping up and down."
The main concern for neighbors, Jarrett and the lawyer he's hired are arguing, is that a large development wouldn't fit the character of the neighborhood, and that increased traffic could hurt the quality of life there.
"What they're trying to do is put a square peg in a round hole," Jarrett said. "I expect they can get it passed if they scale it back and put a round peg in a round hole."
The Islamic Center of St. Cloud was originally established in the city in 1996, according to its website. A phone call to Abdulrashid Salad of the Islamic Center of St. Cloud wasn't returned by deadline.
There is some hope that disagreement in St. Cloud won't be as contentious as similar disputes have been in other parts of the country. Jarrett said he and Salad plan to meet at a local restaurant this morning to talk over their differences of opinion.
The planning commission meeting is at 6 p.m. today in the St. Cloud City Council chambers. The planning commission could make a recommendation following the meeting, but the City Council will get final say on the project. The city must act on the proposal within 120 days.