The St. Cloud Planning Commission Tuesday said it needs more information about traffic before deciding whether to approve an Islamic center, after a three hour discussion at a packed hearing.
The Islamic Center of St. Cloud's proposal would include a new mosque, religious school, offices, retail and restaurant space on a 9.5 acre site in a residential area off Clearwater Road.
At the hearing last night, the residents who raised concerns about the center said traffic congestion, not religion was their focus.
In most other areas of St. Cloud, a religious building wouldn't need to go through the public vetting process. But the site of the proposed mosque is zoned for a single-family home and duplex development, and the commission needs to decide whether to change the plan to allow the Islamic center's proposal.
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Abdulrashid Salad, president of the Islamic center, told commissioners he was willing to remove offices and retail space from the original proposal to compromise with neighbors.
But Salad and others who attended the hearing argued the mosque should be allowed the same rights as other religious groups to build places of worship.
"If you look around the city of St. Cloud, almost all places of worship are located in residential areas," Salad said. "We are not asking anything other than what the city already has."
Commissioner Sheila DeVine moved to table the Islamic Center's proposal to allow time for the center to adjust their plan and for city staff to gather more data of how the new construction could impact traffic and infrastructure in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"The worst thing for us to do would be for us to plan it and OK it when there might be the possibility of something entirely different in the future, and we now have a problem on our hands," DeVine said.
A GROWING COMMUNITY
The Islamic Center of St. Cloud has been active in the city since 1996. They're currently housed in a former Congregational church in downtown St. Cloud.
Salad told commissioners the current building has only two main halls. The new property would serve about 600 worshippers, but the community would also keep the old building to allow space for growth, he said.
"We use each hall as a prayer area, religious education, school for kids and adults, and as a community center," Salad said. "This [new] property would allow us to separate all these functions like any other place of worship."
Mohamoud Mohamed of the St. Cloud Area Somali Salvation Organization told the commission that the growing Muslim community in the area needs the new facility to serve their needs.
"I'm requesting for St. Cloud city to let this project go forward, otherwise it will tell us that St. Cloud is rejecting this new community moving into this St. Cloud area," Mohamed said.
Use this Google Street View feature to see the site of the proposed Islamic center. Story continues below.
Others argued that concerns about the project didn't take into account all the good that the new facility could contribute to St. Cloud. Father Nathan Kroll leads the Holy Myrrh-bearers Orthodox Church near the Islamic center's current location. He said the Islamic center has been an excellent neighbor and urged commissioners to approve the proposal.
"We've heard of problems with traffic causing stress, and headaches and noise," Kroll told commissioners. "You would think it was a toxic dump or something that was being proposed rather than a community of faith."
A CHANGING NEIGHBORHOOD
The proposed site of the new mosque used to belong to the St. Cloud school district, but was sold to the Islamic Center of St. Cloud in 2011 after a housing development on the site floundered, according to city property records.
A few of the buildings that survived the failed housing development are wedged between the empty lot and the busy Clearwater Road. The other side of the lot is bordered by Schmidt Park, which includes a fenced off community garden and ice rink.
There's a thick stand of trees that separates the south side of the lot from the neighbors. It's this band of trees that blends into Patrick Jude's backyard.
"I sit on my deck in the morning with a cup of coffee -- this morning there were two deer out there, they're constantly walking around in those woods," Jude said. "It's the reason I bought this house."
This map shows the location of the proposed Islamic center in St. Cloud. Story continues below.
The Islamic center says they'll preserve the trees, but Jude is also worried that the neighborhood is changing too much and too quickly. The nearby St. Cloud Children's Home is also undergoing a significant expansion.
"It just seems like we're being encroached upon by so many different elements," Jude said. The possibility that the proposed Islamic center would add more traffic on the quiet residential streets, and the already bustling Clearwater Road, is the most pressing concern for some nearby residents like Elizabeth Dahl, who has two young sons.
"If traffic is increased on Clearwater Road of people trying to reach the facility, that will become dangerous for us," Dahl said, telling members of the commission that compromise may be necessary from the original plan for a facility that includes a mosque, classrooms, offices and retail space.
Mark Thieroff, an attorney hired by some nearby residents, argued that the commission could deny or table the application because the plan represents such a drastic change from previous zoning that a completely new plan needs to be submitted. Others argued that the large development wouldn't fit with the character of the neighborhood.
The city has up to 120 days to make a final decision on the proposal. The Islamic center is asking for an amendment to the planned unit development on the property. The St. Cloud Planning Commission will consider the Islamic center's revised plan at their next meeting. They'll then hand the proposal off to the St. Cloud City Council for the final vote.