Following overwhelming support at a public hearing Monday night, city plan commissioners unanimously backed construction of a mosque in Brookfield, sending the plans to aldermen for final approval.
The voice vote drew applause, handshakes and hugs among the approximately 30 people who stayed to hear the vote after the hearing that packed the Common Council chambers and two overflow areas.
Commissioner Gary Mahkorn, one of two aldermen whose district includes the mosque site, said he was "so proud" of the community for its support of religious diversity and freedom of religious worship, despite concerns some raised about Islam and terrorism.
"We're a welcoming community," Mahkorn said. "I'm proud of this community. I'm proud of this country."
Mushir Hassan, project manager for the Islamic Society of Milwaukee and a Brookfield resident and physician, said he was bouyed by the positive reaction Monday.
"We're obviously very encouraged," Hassan said. "It's just very heart-warming the degree of support we've got from the greater community."
The commissioners' recommendation — which includes a long list of conditions including building an extended right-turn lane from Pheasant Drive onto Calhoun Road — now goes to the Common Council for a possible vote at its May 15 meeting.
If aldermen accept the recommendation (three of the city's 14 aldermen were among the seven plan commissioners voting Monday night), construction could begin as soon as June, with occupancy of the mosque eyed for spring 2013, Hassan has said.
The Islamic Society of Milwaukee has a May 18 fundraiser planned to help secure the estimated $1.5 million cost to build the mosque's first phase. A second phase that could add another 10,000 square feet to the mosque and increase maximum worship space from 114 people to 350 would raise the total cost to $3.6 million.
Mosque expansion eyed after widening
Hassan, however, said in an interview after the vote that he believed the Muslim community would wait to expand until after Calhoun Road is widened from two to four lanes from North Avenue to Capitol Drive. That widening may not occur for 10 to 15 years, City Engineer Jeff Chase has said.
Hassan said he believed the 114 maximum worshippers allowed under phase one would be more than adequate. About 60 to 70 currently meet for prayers at Waukesha Memorial Hospital. Waiting to expand until Calhoun Road is widened is "the most polite thing to do," he said.
Fundraising for a larger mosque also would take more time, he said.
Mayor Steve Ponto, who chairs the Plan Commission, told the standing-room-only crowd that any comments about religion would not be considered by officials. He told the audience to stick to zoning and site issues, such as traffic, stormwater and environmental issues.
Othman Atta, an attorney and executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, told commissioners that federal government civil rights officials had asked him if he felt Brookfield was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that prohibits zoning decisions limiting the free exercise of religion.
Atta said he told them Brookfield had done a fair and commendable job reviewing the proposal. He told commissioners the federal government would only consider intervening if the project was denied.
Ald. Mark Nelson said he believed 86 people spoke Monday night, with all but no more than 10 speaking in favor of the mosque.
The prevailing comment by supporters and Islamic Society members was that a closer mosque was needed for convenience, shorter driving commutes and community fellowship.
Desire for mosque closer to home
"We came here for the same reasons just about everybody else did: great neighborhood, great schools," Bushra Zaibak said. "It would be so great to have a place of worship nearby so I don't have to leave Brookfield."
Mir Basir said, "I hope that next time my grandson is able to visit me, that I would be able to take him to my mosque."
Those opposed cited traffic and environmental concerns, not religious issues. However, some residents who have raised concerns at past public sessions about sharia law, terrorist ties and Islamic extremists were in attendance but did not speak.
Ted Gibbs, a longtime Brookfield resident, said the city should spend more time studying the potential traffic impact.
Magnet for Muslim growth, traffic
"I think this will be a magnet for Muslims who would like to come to Brookfield to pray," Gibbs said. Is there any reason not to delay and do a more thorough, more longer term study? Because it isn't going to be a mosque for 60 or 70 people."
Kathleen Grasse of Brookfield said, "I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights and freedom of religion.... What I'm not a fan of any increase in traffic, any facility that's going to bring in 100 people, 100 cars."
Grasse urged officials to reject the mosque and impose a building moratorium in that location until the road is widened to support more traffic.
"I'm just disappointed," Sandra Ruggles, a former Brookfield resident now living in Milwaukee, said after the meeting. "I don't think they gave due diligence to a traffic study." Ruggles said none of her concerns related to religion, but were about parking and stormwater.
"They said they read all those blue sheets (of public comments from a May 2 informational session) but they didn't respond to everything," said Sharon Kurz of Brookfield.
Ahmed Quereshi, president of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, said after the hearing that he was "very happy" with Monday's public hearing and vote. "It was gratifying to hear the appreciation expressed for all the work we've done on this project," Quereshi said. "We plan to have a long-term relationship with the city."
Check out a replay of Patch's live blog from Monday night's Plan Commission meeting.
- For more information on the mosque, see Patch's previous stories.