Windermere, FL

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Description

In early August 2016 and after more than two hours of presentations, public comment, and deliberations, the Orange County Board of Zoning Adjustments votes unanimously to deny the Muslim community’s request for a special exception to build a mosque in a residential area along the northern shore of Lake Mabel. Opponents comment mostly on the impact the mosque would have on the area’s rural nature, but during information meetings about the planned project and at the meeting before the BZA negative statements about Islam and mosques creep into the conversation as well.

Creator

Stewart Zelnick

Year

2016

Proposed Project

The Muslim community submits plans for a 6,900-square-foot mosque in Spanish architectural style. The project requires a special exception under Orange County’s zoning regulations.

Outcome

The BZA denies the Muslim community’s request for a special exeption. Following the denial, the Islamic Center of Orlando opens a prayer room (musholla) in a rental property at a different location in Windermere.

Narrative

As in other metro areas around the country, the Muslim community’s growth in Orlando was prompting some Islamic centers to expand facilities and others to establish new houses of worship in underserved areas. In early 2016, a local Muslim group loosely affiliated with the Islamic Center of Orlando, which in the same year would seek permission from Orange County to expand its main facility on Ruby Lake Road (Baqureo, 2016, Dec 1), was planning to build a new mosque in a residential area along the northern shore of Lake Mabel. The Windermere Religious Center, a 6,900-square-foot mosque in Spanish architectural style, required a special exception under Orange County’s zoning regulations. After several public information sessions with subsequent revisions to the proposal, the Orange County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) denied the Muslim community’s request for a special exception.

The land for the Windermere Religious Center was zoned rural-county estate (R-CE), which allowed for houses of worship as special-exception use. The property was privately owned by a member of the local Muslim community, who wanted to donate the land to construct the mosque. Initial plans envisioned a structure that could accommodate up to 120 worshippers (Kerr 2016, Mar 25). At two public information meetings in March and July, the developer introduced the project emphasizing “the applicant had worked hard to make the facility as aesthetically pleasing and screened as possible in [an] attempt to appease nearby residents” (Hendrix, 2016, Jul 28). The building consciously emulated the architectural style of the area’s upscale residential homes. It did not include visibly Islamicate elements such as a minaret or dome. Other changes to the initial plans that followed from concerns expressed at the information sessions included restrictions on lighting and noise (ibid.).

Residents remained overwhelmingly opposed to the project. Concerns focused mostly on expected changes to the area’s rural character and on the mosque’s environmental impact. “Any large facility would take away from what makes the area a great place to live,” stated one local resident (“Residents Fight Mosque Plan,” 2016, Mar 11). At the two public information meetings with developers and county officials, residents reiterated that the project was out of place in a low-density residential area with single-family homes. The environmental impact of the development on wetlands and the lake’s water level was a matter of concern as well (Kerr, 2016, Mar 31). Although zoning issues were at the forefront of the debate, religious intolerance also appeared to be a motivating factor for some in the opposition. "[T]here were some indirect accusations of what Islam and what mosques have,” remarked Rasha Mubarak, a member of the Muslim community, after the first public meeting (“Proposed Mosuqe,” 2016, Mar 17). She continued, "Some people were very clear and precise with not wanting our religion there" (ibid.). Opposition included people from outside Windermere, such as one Michael Johnson, with a history of opposing Muslim building projects in the Orlando metro area. In addition to presenting petitions he had collected against the mosque, Johnson spoke before the Board of Zoning Adjustments alleging the Muslim community deliberatly had provided “erroneous and false information” in its application.

After more than two hours of presentations, public comment, and deliberations, the Orange County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) voted unanimously (5-0) to deny the Muslim community’s request for a special exception at its August 4 meeting. In introducing the case to the BZA, county staff had expressed concerns regarding the development primarily because it would introduce non-residential use into an otherwise residential area, which was rural in nature. Staff also noted that other religious institutions of comparable size had been approved in the same zone within a .5-mile radius but that these were closer to more densely populated areas. The Muslim community was represented by the engineering team who in their presentation sought to demonstrate that the application fulfilled the county’s six requirements for a special exception. Public comments were evenly split between those speaking in favor and against the project. Opponents underscored their apprehension over potential future growth and increased attendance by showing pictures of overflow parking at the Islamic Center of Orlando’s central mosque on Ruby Lake Road. At least one of the BZA members echoed the concern. It took the BZA fewer than ten minutes to deliberate after the public comment section had been closed. The motion to deny the special exception carried unanimously (5-0). “We want to be inclusive, but it’s not the right project for this particular lot,” explained the chair of the board as he closed the meeting.

The denial came at a time of increased vulnerability for Muslim communities following the June 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando. In the incident’s wake, numerous mosques in Florida, and across the U.S., were subject to intimidation campaigns. Other mosques and Islamic centers in Florida such as the Al-Amin Islamic Center were vandalized or, like the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, targets of arson attacks. But the denial also was reminiscent of earlier difficulties for Windermere Muslims to establish a house of worship in the area. In 2014, the County had rejected a special exception petition by a Muslim couple to construct a mosque on a vacant lot northeast of Lake Tibet. With 13,000 square feet, the mosque would have been nearly twice as large as the one proposed by the Windermere Religious Center (Wood, 2016, Aug 19).

The Windermere area to this date lacks a purpose-built mosque or Islamic center. To address the worship needs of Muslim residents of Windermere, Lake Mable, Lake Tibet, and Lake Butler, the Islamic Center of Orlando recently established a prayer space, the Windermere Musholla, in a commercial property in Winter Garden.

References

  • Baquero, Gaby. (2016, December 1). Mosque seeks expansion. Windermere Observer (Winter Garden, FL), p. A1. Retrieved from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.
  • Hendrix, Danielle. (2016, July 28). More details emerge about proposed mosque. Southwest Orange Observers, p. 1. Retrieved from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.
  • Kerr, Zak. (2016, March 31). Developers introduce plans for mosque. Windermere Observer (Winter Garden, FL), p. 5. Retrieved from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.
  • Kerr, Zak. (2016, March 25). Community meeting addresses mosque. Windermere Observer. Retrieved from www.orangeobserver.com.
  • Proposed mosque has some Windermere residents concerned. (2016, March 17). ABC - 9 WFTV: Web Edition Articles (Orlando, FL). Retrieved from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.
  • Residents fight mosque plan on Windermere Road. (2016, March 11). ABC - 9 WFTV: Web Edition Articles (Orlando, FL). Retrieved from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.
  • Wood, Debra. (2016, August 19). Keene’s Pointe resident hopes to build mosque: Many express concern over land use. Southwest Orlando Bulletin. Retrieved from www.southwestorlandobulletin.com

 

Last Updated

July 4, 2020

Collection

Citation

Stewart Zelnick, “Windermere, FL,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed May 20, 2022, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/37.

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