Muslim Community, Rural Residents Seek Middle Ground In Developmental Fight (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Muslim Community, Rural Residents Seek Middle Ground in Development Fight

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We turn now from a faith group that's just getting started, to one that would like to expand. The Dar-us-Salaam Muslim community was founded in Silver Spring in 1995. Since then, it's moved to College Park. And its school for pre-K through 12th graders has grown from some two dozen students to nearly 650. Now, the leader of Dar-us-Salaam would like to move again so they can grow and expand the services they offer their members. But, as Tara Boyle tells us, some residents near Dar-us-Salaam's proposed new home are fighting those plans.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:00:37
It's the last Friday before spring break and teachers at the Al-Huda School are scrambling to wrap up lessons before saying goodbye to their students for a week.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:00:54
Several dozen first-grade girls, dressed in blue dresses and white headscarves, stretch their hands in the air, waving for teacher Shirin Ishaq's attention.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:01:11
Down the hallway and around a corner, an older group of girls are in Hifz class. They're memorizing the Quran and rock back and forth as they recite the words on the pages in front of them.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:01:25
This classroom is in use all day, every day, which is pretty much the case for every classroom in this school.

MR. HAROON BAQAI

00:01:31
We've maxed this building out. We're using every single room, every single closet.

BOYLE

00:01:35
Haroon Baqai is the principal of Al-Huda School.

BAQAI

00:01:38
Some of the closets have been converted into office space. Some, you know, rooms which were really not classrooms, we had to convert them into classrooms.

BOYLE

00:01:46
And Baqai says the space crunch doesn't just affect students. Their parents and other adults in the Dar-us-Salaam community have no room at the Al-Huda campus for their prayer services.

BOYLE

00:02:03
So they hold them several miles away in a Knights of Columbus hall. Amman Sofikan (sp?) leads those services.

BOYLE

00:02:32
Members of Dar-us-Salaam would like to be able to house all their programs, Friday prayers, their school and their newspaper among others, in a single location, one that will allow their community to grow and thrive. And they think they've found the perfect spot.

BOYLE

00:02:46
It's about 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and I'm here in front of the site of the former Woodmont Academy, a Catholic school here in Howard County.

BOYLE

00:02:55
The Woodmont Academy in Cooksville, Md. Close in 2011 and now the site is shuttered with a chain link fence blocking off the school's driveway.

MS. CHAUN HIGHTOWER

00:03:03
So we're surrounded by what is really a rural landscape. We have horse farms, fences, open spaces as far as you can see.

BOYLE

00:03:12
Chaun Hightower has lived a few miles from the Woodmont Academy since 2005.

HIGHTOWER

00:03:17
I was just really attracted to the idea of my kids going to school and being able to see cows right, you know, from their classroom.

BOYLE

00:03:23
But last fall she heard about Dar-us-Salaam's plans to move here and redevelop the Woodmont site. And she says she started to worry about the future of this rural enclave 30 miles west of Baltimore.

HIGHTOWER

00:03:33
The idea of having what looked like a really huge community being built out here didn't seem to fit in with the landscape.

BOYLE

00:03:42
So Hightower and other residents formed a formal coalition, Residents for the Responsible Development of Woodmont, or RRDW. They created a website and started voicing their concerns to local officials. Paul Skalny is an attorney working with the group.

MR. PAUL SKALNY

00:03:57
The RRDW is comprised of over 500 people. We represent somewhere in the tune of, I think, 12 or 13 different homeowners associations.

BOYLE

00:04:06
They're big concern, he says, has to do with zoning. Allowing a new large-scale development at this site, they worry, might open the floodgates to other big developments in some of the last large tracts of open space in Howard County.

SKALNY

00:04:19
So what the petitioner has asked for here is a change of zone from RC to an institutional overlay. Which would really expand--

BOYLE

00:04:26
The zoning lingo here gets wanky (sic) pretty quickly, but Chaun Hightower says what this whole dispute boils down to is development.

HIGHTOWER

00:04:33
Our issues, as it relates to the purchase, has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that this is a Muslim community, nor does it have anything to do with the religion as a whole. Our issue is land use.

BOYLE

00:04:44
Paul Skalny says RRDW would be fine with Dar-us-Salaam's move to Cooksville, if it'll agree to use the land according to the more conservative zoning rules that applied to Woodmont Academy.

SKALNY

00:04:55
This is really about setting a precedent in the western part of this community and allowing a zone to become prevalent in a location where it really doesn't belong.

BOYLE

00:05:08
Back in College Park it's lunchtime at Al-Huda School. Hundreds of girls are eating pizza at long tables in the cafeteria. Minhaj Hasan is a board member of Dar-us-Salaam. He says he and other members of his community are still hoping Howard County officials will grant their zoning request. But he also says preliminary concerns about the size of their plan, including a proposed mosque that could hold thousands of people, have been overblown.

MR. MINHAJ HASAN

00:05:32
If we, you know, can have a site that could accommodate unlimited growth, of course, why wouldn't anyone have that? But we recognize the reality. The reality of our growth it's not going towards 5,000. I mean, there's no Islamic center in the country, I think, that gets 5,000 congregants.

BOYLE

00:05:50
And Hasan wants residents in Cooksville to know that, if the sale of the Woodmont Academy goes through, Dar-us-Salaam will work hard to be a good neighbor and build strong ties to the local community.

HASAN

00:06:00
Dar-us-Salaam means the abode of peace or the home of peace. So that's what we want. We want people to know us, not from our pamphlets and our marketing material on our website, but we want people to know us when they interact with us.

BOYLE

00:06:16
He'll find out soon whether that interaction is in the cards. Howard County planning officials will make a recommendation on the zoning of the Woodmont site to members of the County Council in the coming weeks and the Council is expected to vote on the matter by this summer. I'm Tara Boyle.

SHEIR

00:06:40
You can see photos of Dar-us-Salaam's current and potential future homes on our website, metroconnection.org.
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