A site for a Muslim mosque, bolstered by a decade-old federal law but not by neighborhood sentiment, received Henrico County Planning Commission approval Thursday night after a public hearing that raised concerns ranging from noise levels to hate levels.
First proposed three years ago by a group of Muslim investors but defeated by a 3-2 Board of Supervisors vote then, the project won a rezoning recommendation Thursday night that is the first step in the construction of a 10,500-square-foot facility off Staples Mill Road in an area bordered by cottage-style homes and small businesses.
“We’re cautiously optimistic and plan to move forward,” attorney John Mizell Jr. said of the recommended zoning change, from office to residential use. A mosque could not exist under the current office zoning.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to take up the issue sometime in August, Mizell said. A maximum of about 100 people would use the facility at any given time, he said.
Mizell told the board and about 30 residents opposing the project that a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, designed in part to strengthen freedom of religious expression and buttressed by court opinions since the mosque was considered in 2008, created a new dynamic for the mosque vote.
The 3.6-acre property on Impala Drive near Hermitage and Hilliard Roads has been vacant and has failed to attract development for more than 20 years.
On Thursday night, area businessmen questioned whether a house of worship was appropriate for an area with heavy truck traffic, loud construction noises, narrow streets and small industries.
“We shouldn’t have to change our way of operating just to be a good neighbor,” said Bob Leahey, who operates a fire-suppression business that is near the proposed site. “This is kind of an assault on the neighborhood.”
But businessmen and residents wondered, too, if the mosque might generate bothersome noise.
And Sue Blake, calling herself a “not politically correct” person and an American, openly described the mosque as possibly a place preaching hate and destruction. She brought a copy of the Quran to the hearing and a DVD titled “Homegrown Jihad.”
Majid Khan, a Henrico investor in the project, had to be cut off as he passionately spoke of his own patriotism and love of American values, and he scolded some speakers for describing all Muslims as hate mongerers bent on killing.
“Some people came (to the United States) early and some people came late,” he said, portraying the country as settled by immigrants over time but unified in their love for the country.
Mizell, as he did three years ago, pointed to similar zoning changes that allowed the establishment of churches elsewhere in the county.
Khan said the finished mosque would cost $500,000 to $750,000 and would also be a community center. It is expected to serve a north-of-the-James Muslim community of about 4,000 people.
Blake and other opponents said after the vote that they will be out in force when the supervisors take up the proposal.