Pittsfield, MI

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Description

A documented account of Case No. MI_05, occurring in Pittsfield, MI, 48105 from 2011 to 2016

Creator

Stewart Zelnick

Proposed Project

school (initial proposal also include a future community center and mosque)

Outcome

approved (after legal settlement)

Narrative

The Michigan Islamic Academy (MIA), a private Islamic school in Ann Arbor, had outgrown its facilities. Established in 1985 as a subsidiary organization of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor (MCA), MIA  shared facilities with MCA’s community center and mosque on Ann Arbor’s Plymouth Road. By 2008, the buildings had become inadequate to deliver the school’s curriculum and MIA began exploring options to branch out. In addition to expanding its existing facilities in Ann Arbor—a plan the City of Ann Arbor approved in May 2010 (Zemke, 2010, May 5)—MIA found a suitable location for a new school building in the nearby Pittsfield Township. The property required a rezoning application. The RLUIPA case that followed the Township’s denial of MIA’s rezoning application included not only MIA’s private lawsuit but also a separate DOJ complaint against the Township as well as a legal intervention by the American Freedom Law Center. In September 2016, after four and one-half years, the parties entered a consent order that allowed the project to proceed. It also required the Township to pay MIA $1.7 million in fees and damages--one of the largest settlement sums in an RLUIPA case at the time.

In their search for a suitable property board members had identified an undeveloped residential tract of 26.7 acres in nearby Pittsfield Township The parcel was part of the residential Silverleaf Planned Unit Development (PUD). Although the Township’s master plan permitted schools in residential zones, the PUD made a rezoning application necessary (Gardner, 2011, January 12). MIA representatives informed Township officials about the intended use and received verbal assurance that the property could be rezoned (Perkins, 2011, March 31). In September 2010, MCA community members purchased the property for around $250,000 at foreclosure and continued to work with Township planners on submitting a rezoning application. MIA submitted its petition (RZ 10-04) for one-story school building to the Planning Commission in early December 2010. The submitted plans included plans for a future community center and prayer hall in addition to the educational facilities for the school. 

The Planning Commission met on January 13, 2011 to discuss the application. Representatives from MIA addressed concerns brought forth by an outside consultant for the Township and signaled their willingness to accept further modifications and conditions. Commissioners, however, voted unanimously in favor of having planning staff draft a resolution for denial that could be discussed and voted on at a subsequent Planning Commission meeting (Gardener, 2011, January 13). Although MIA’s project was not included on the formal agenda until August, several speakers addressed the project at subsequent Planning Commission meetings from the floor. At a heavily attended meeting on June 16, opponents presented the Planning Commission with a petition signed by 26 residents against the project. After controversial statements from the public that included negative comments on Muslim practices, the Planning Commission voted on a preliminary motion to deny MIA’s petition.

About 125 residents attended the August 4 meeting when the Planning Commission formally took up MIA’s rezoning petition again and voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution for denial (Perkins, 2011, August 5). The vote came after a long public comment session that had lasted until 1:30 a.m. The Commission based its denial on the assessment that MIA did not fulfill 3 out of 11 required standards for rezoning of the PUD. Commissioners noted that MIA could not be considered a “small-scale school,” which had been a stipulation in the Township’s 2003 masterplan when MIA submitted its application, though the small-scale qualifier had been dropped from the subsequent masterplan in 2010. The Commission also cited expectations for an increase in traffic and expected noise and light disturbances from outdoor activities as further reasons for its denial. The Township’s Board of Trustees (BOT) followed the Planning Commission’s recommendation for denial at its October 26 meeting. The BOT did not publicly deliberate the motion before it proceeded to vote unanimously for denial (Perkins, 2011, October 27). No public comments had been allowed during the meeting.

Following the Township’s vote, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District confirmed that it was reviewing the denial as a potential RLUIPA violation (Brand-Williams, 2011, December 27). While the DOJ was still determining whether to start a formal investigation, CAIR-MI announced at a press conference in February 2012 that it had filed a federal lawsuit on MIA’s behalf against the Township. The case Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor and Vicinity v. Pittsfield Charter Township (E.D. Mich. 12-CV-10803) made it through the court system in several stages involving amendments to the original complaint as well as an intervention by the American Freedom Law Center which sought to “quash” MIA’s discovery demands against seven local residents. In a ruling from March 20, 2015 the court denied MIA’s complaint on the grounds that the group “lacked a legally cognizable property interest to sustain its claims” because it never itself had acquired the property but only received permission from the property owner to use it for its school (Seeman et al., 2015, April 10). Despite this denial based on Michigan state law, the court was careful to state that MIA could still assert the RLUIPA claim if it acquired a property interest or that the claim could be brought by another entity that had such an interest. On May 20, 2015 MIA officially acquired the property (Chaffee et al., 2015, November 1).

The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a separate RLUIPA lawsuit against the Township. In United States of America v. Pittsfield Charter Township (E.D. Mich. October 26, 2015) the DOJ alleged that the Township had placed a substantial burden on MIA. The complaint specifically responded to the three required standards for rezoning the Planning Commission had used as basis for its recommendation for denial. “The stated failure to meet the three PUD criteria was without factual basis,” read the complaint (ibid., p. 11). The DOJ further charged that Commissioners had continued to raise concerns about potential problems stemming from a future community center on the site even though MIA had resubmitted revised drawings to the Commission that excluded the plan for a community center and prayer hall.

Within a year of the DOJ’s RLUIPA complaint the court entered a consent order that required the Township to allow the project to proceed and to accept additional training, notice, and reporting requirements (“Justice Department and Pittsfield Charter Township Resolve Lawsuit,” 2016, September 29). The consent order was filed concurrently with a consent judgment in MIA’s lawsuit against the Township. The latter required  Pittsfield to pay $1.7 million in damages and legal fees that had resulted from the delay in construction caused by the 2011 denial. In addition, CAIR-MI disclosed that the settlement would allow MIA “to build a 70,000 square foot Islamic school, a residential development consisting of 22 duplex units and three single family homes, and a park” (“Islamic School Awarded $1.7 Million in Settlement,” 2016, September 29). Neither consent order required the Township to admit any wrongdoing or liability. As of June 2020, no land had been broken on the property. 

Last Updated

June 23, 2020

Collection

Citation

Stewart Zelnick, “Pittsfield, MI,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed December 5, 2021, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/33.

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