Tempest Over a Mosque : Muslims Charge Walnut Planners With Religious Bigotry

Times Staff Writer

A group of Muslims is charging that the Walnut Planning Commission rejected a proposed mosque because of religious bigotry rather than sound planning considerations.

The charge is vehemently denied by commission members, who have unanimously opposed the group's request to build a temple even though the city staff had recommended approval. Commission Chairman Robert Luna said in an interview that he and his colleagues objected to the increase in traffic the temple would generate and to some of its architectural features.

But Maher Selim, president of the Islamic Center of the San Gabriel Valley, maintained that the traffic issue is a smoke screen to hide religious prejudice.

"I don't really like at this point to call it racial discrimination," Selim said. But, he added, "I really believe the city rejected it because they felt they don't want to have a mosque there. I personally feel this is what is in the people's mind."

The matter will now go to the City Council, which will hold a hearing on the request at its June 12 or June 26 meeting, a city official said.

The Muslims, most of whom emigrated from the Middle East, have temporary quarters in a Rowland Heights shopping center. The want to build a contemporary-style 16,500-square-foot Islamic center and mosque on 1.7 acres at the northwest corner of La Puente and Pierre Roads. The group--which numbers about 75 families in the east San Gabriel Valley, including roughly 40 families in Walnut--plans to raise the money for the more than $1.2-million center from private donations. It will be built in phases as finances permit, said Adnan Khatib, an engineer helping with the project.

The property is across the street from the athletic fields of Suzanne Middle School and Walnut High School and a residential development. It is next to the site of an Evangelical Formosan Church, which already has been granted permission to build, and less than 100 yards down the road from the United Methodist Church of Walnut. The property is zoned for residential development and a permit is required for other uses.

The planning staff recommended that the commission approve the permit if the group agreed to pay for several expensive street improvements, and it reported that the roads "are adequate to carry the kind of traffic generated by the requested use." The staff report stated that the proposed mosque had adequate parking and landscaping compatible with its surroundings. It also found that the project "will not have any significant environmental effects" and is "consistent with the city's General Plan.

A study by Weston Pringle & Associates of Fullerton, a traffic engineering firm hired by the Muslims, found that at its busiest time--Friday afternoons, the traditional day of worship in the Islamic religion--the center would attract fewer than 40 vehicles.

But Luna said that the traffic study did not take into consideration future development in the area and that the commissioners believe that intersection could not handle the anticipated traffic from that development as well as that from the Islamic center.

"We did disagree with some points (made by the staff)," Luna said. "That's the whole reason for having a commission. We not only have to look at current use but also three to five years in the future. It is a land-use issue only. They seemed to want to sway it toward a (constitutional) rights issue and that's not it at all."

Mayor Charles Richardson said he wants to see a more comprehensive traffic study and added, "I would have liked to have seen that (request) returned (to the commissioners) for further study, and that still may be done. I don't think we had sufficient reason to deny this project. My decision will not be based on any prejudice."

Agree to Shorten Spire

Khatib, the engineer, said leaders of the center would agree to pay for most of the street improvements, which Planning Director George Shindo estimated would cost about $500,000. Khatib said the group would alter the design of the building to satisfy the commission and noted that the leaders already have agreed to reduce a 50-foot spire in the original plan by 15 feet.

Planning Commissioner Lou Nimmo said that he objected to the mosque's contemporary design. "I don't think it fits into a rural atmosphere of the community," Nimmo said.

Selim and others in the Muslim community said they believe residents have a negative image of Muslims because of the strife in the Middle East involving some sects and Muslim-ruled governments, which have invoked the Islamic religion as a basis for violent action.

'Big Misunderstanding'

"We are hoping that at the next hearing we can convince them that our center will serve the community," Selim said. "There is a very big misunderstanding over the concept of the Islamic Center and the Muslim community. We hope they will understand Islam is not what some government says it is.

"The Muslims are living there (in Walnut) and have their houses there and pay taxes there. We want to share the same rights every American has. One of the things that makes America the greatest country in the world is freedom of religion."

Julia Campos, who lives next to the site of the proposed temple, said she has no objections to its being a neighbor. "Muslims are very good people," Campos said, noting that their religion forbids drinking alcohol.

Off the Tax Rolls

However, Maurice Cofer, spokesman for the Gartel-Fuerte Homeowners' Assn., said his group opposes the mosque because of traffic and financial concerns. Religious institutions cut revenues by removing property from the tax rolls, he said. "We have given enough in this area in the way of development for churches," said Cofer, who added that his group represents about 150 families.

"Walnut is not intolerant of religion. They're the ones who injected religion into this. It's a crude way of saying, 'We're using this as a pressure point on you.' We've got all kinds of people in our association."

Cofer, a 69-year-old rancher, acknowledged that the proposed mosque is creating friction in the community, once characterized by rolling walnut and lemon groves and horse ranches. Many residents like their isolation and resent the intrusion of suburban life into their rural setting, he said.

"We've got the largest park in the city down there and I don't get too upset about that except when they leave the lights on," Cofer said. "And we get the drunks who leave their beer bottles all over creation and we don't make too big a stink about that. But how much can a group of people take? I could throw a baseball, if I was still young, and hit three or four churches."

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