West Bloomfield Township has become just the latest in a string of communities across the country grappling with issues surrounding the arrival of a proposed Islamic cultural center, and as in other locales, it has not been without its share of controversy, particularly following the reported line of questioning posited by some on the township Planning Commission. Asking questions is all well and good, but it’s incumbent upon township officials — not to mention residents — to keep their eyes on the ball and evaluate the proposal fairly, not letting religious or political issues taint the process by which the proposed cultural center is evaluated and ultimately approved or scuttled.
Members of the West Bloomfield Planning Commission and Wetland Review Board are expected on Sunday, Sept. 9 to visit the former Farmington Public Schools Eagle Elementary School site in West Bloomfield, a visit that was requested earlier this month before voting on approval of a site plan and a special land use permit for the cultural center, which would be located on the northwest corner of Middlebelt and 14 Mile roads. In addition, a floodplain review for a stormwater management system is under consideration.
Those issues are expected to be revisited at the Planning Commission’s Oct. 23 meeting.
At play is the repurposing of a shuttered school on a site that encompasses 9.55 acres and would include a 13,102-square-foot addition — consisting of a mosque, lobby and multi-purpose room — to the existing 38,860-square-foot structure, bringing the building’s size to nearly 52,000 square feet.
If the commission approves the matters before it, its recommendation for the cultural center would then be sent before the township Board of Trustees for final approval.
The Islamic Cultural Association, now located in Franklin, purchased the former Eagle Elementary School from the Farmington Public School District for $1.1 million, but some took umbrage with the sale and filed a lawsuit, which was subsequently quashed in Oakland County Circuit Court, claiming that the Farmington district’s Board of Education had already approved and accepted bids on the school’s demolition rather than a sale; and that the January 2011 purchase by the cultural association didn’t follow an approved bidding process before the sale of the school, located at 29410 W. 14 Mile Road in West Bloomfield.
An appeal is currently pending.
Some of the roughly 125 people attending the Aug. 14 Planning Commission meeting expressed opposition to the cultural center because of concerns over vehicular traffic and the proposed height of the building, which would be 38 feet.
Some attendees, as well as one planning commissioner, also questioned an Islamic Cultural Association member about additional funding for the proposed cultural center from outside groups and organizations, sparking the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to contact the U.S. Department of Justice regarding what CAIR believes to be inappropriate questioning.
That member of the cultural association said at the meeting the total cost of the project would be between $5 million and $6 million when completed over a 3- to 5-year period.
We’ve seen stories much like this one play out in other states in ways that have left us cringing, with people opposed to Islamic institutions coming to their communities resorting to vitriol and thinly-veiled anti-Muslim sentiments that have no place in west Oakland County, and should have no place in any other portion of the country.
The proposed Islamic cultural centers in New York City, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and elsewhere were met in those areas — and indeed, areas throughout the United States — with reprehensible Islamophobia, doing nothing to enhance intercultural and interfaith ties between Muslims and non-Muslims that have been, at best, somewhat strained since 9/11.
And it’s not the job of the Planning Commission, Wetland Review Board, or virtually any other township entity to fix that.
It is, instead, the job of township officials to evaluate the proposal dispassionately and fairly, weighing the cultural center on its merits, adherence to the master plan and zoning regulations, and other such governing documents — not on fears of a group of people maligned and, yes, persecuted because 19 men who happened to have the same faith committed a barbaric act of terrorism almost 11 years ago.
If the proposed cultural center meets the demands of township rules for development, approve it and welcome the newest members of an increasingly diverse West Bloomfield community with open arms; if it fails to meet those specifications, it doesn’t warrant approval.
At this point, we’re not aware of bigotry tainting the approval process for the Islamic cultural center. Township officials and residents need to keep it that way.