Alpharetta, GA

ga_01_pic1.jpg
ga_01_pic2.jpg

Description

A documented account of Case No. GA_03, occurring in Alpharetta, GA. 30004 from June 2009 to March 2010

Proposed Project

An Islamic center that would involve construction on a 12-acre property along Tidwell Road of a roughly 20,000 square foot building that could seat up to 750 people, 130 parking spaces, and playground and picnic areas. The building would contain a mosque, school, community center, and gym.

Outcome

Unanimous approval of a sketch plat for the Hamzah Islamic Center in South Forsyth by the Forsyth Board of Commissioners.

Narrative

The Hamzah Islamic Center (HIC) was founded in 2005. The center rented a property of 6,000 square feet at 1350 Union Hill Road to accommodate growing prayers and Sunday school demands. But after growing in size and wanting a more peaceful location, options for a new site were considered. Originally, the mosque was proposed to be built on property off Old Alpharetta Road, but an alternative option had to be considered after it was met with strong opposition from neighbors. Propositions by the HIC were met with concerns about traffic and opposition by the residents and adjoining businesses. It was decided that the proposed plan for the Islamic center would involve construction on a 12-acre property along Tidwell Road of a roughly 20,000 square foot building that could seat up to 750 people, 130 parking spaces, and playground and picnic areas (Pepalis 2009, Oct 5). The building would contain a mosque, school, community center, and gym. The Tidwell Road site is located on land zoned as agricultural, which allows for houses of worship. In June of 2009, members of the mosque organized a meeting with nearby residents of Tidwell. During the meeting, there were discussions on traffic, how the building is going to look, and other logistical aspects. Some who attended were friendly, while others were prejudicial. Some mosque representatives were told that they were not wanted in the area and were questioned on whether they were “planted by some foreign country” (Arrington 2009, Oct 1).

In late June of 2009, an engineer for the mosque, Jack Hamilton helped run a county-mandated community meeting to explain to residents the plans for the 12 acres that the HIC had bought (Quinn 2009, Oct 3). Tareef Saeb, chairman of Hamzah said that they were going to, “talk about our plans and what it’s going to look like...and a little bit of religious background, educational stuff”, adding that they would also, “address any concerns or issues neighbors might have” (Reddy 2009, Jun 17). The meeting was held in an office of the Union Hill Road facility. Hamilton, who is half Thai, quickly became a target for ire and prejudice with his dark skin and hair. Someone asked in the meeting if the members of the mosque were in the U.S. legally (Arrington 2009, Oct 1). Another asked where the money to build the mosque was coming from. Others simply said, “We don’t want you here.” Wendell Walls, who lives near the mosque said that it’s strange that none of the Muslims have ever spoken up against Islamic radicals and extremists. However, Hamzah members made sure to treat their guests kindly. Food was prepared and visitors were asked to take of their shoes when they entered the prayer area. Only one woman refused to take off her shoes. Stuart Teague, an attorney working for a neighbor who opposed the mosque said the mosque members were “very courteous and nice” (Quinn 2009, Oct 3).

Opponents of the center have repeatedly stated that they don’t oppose the center location because of its religion, and would do similarly if it was a Baptist church. For many of the Forsyth county residents, their biggest concern was traffic issues. Jennifer Howard, speaking on behalf of Quail Ridge and adjacent neighborhoods said that the facility would increase traffic, stating that “This [project] is entirely too large for this narrow two-lane road. Tidwell is a neighborhood street with no sidewalks and a great deal of pedestrian traffic. It has sharp 15-mile-an-hour turns, hills, and valleys with virtually no sight distance” (Arrington 2009, Oct 3). Other concerns involved issues such as parking spaces. Thomas Pappagallo, who lives close by to the site and was one of the opposition organizers, told commissioners that the neighborhood needs revitalization like sidewalks, better roads, and security to increase property values. The development of the mosque would cut into this.

However, during the public hearing on October 1, 2009 on the decision to approve the mosque, overtones of fear and faith were not present. Instead, residents discussed concerns regarding trees being cut down, traffic, environmental impacts, and the effect on property values. Pappagallo and others tried hard to make sure the discussion didn’t devolve into religious attacks. After consulting at length with county staff and the county attorney, Commissioner Jim Harrell made the decision. The Forsyth Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a sketch plat for the Hamzah Islamic Center in South Forsyth. “I have consulted at length with staff and counsel,” Harrell said. “I don’t believe the board has any option but to approve [the request]” (LaRenzie 2010, Mar 10). Additionally, eight conditions offered by the applicants and several by Commission Chairman Charlese Laughinghouse were added to the sketch plat. One requirement, for example was that the mosque meet any traffic improvement requirements determined by the county engineering department, such as turn lanes or traffic signals. Overall, however, the nearly 200 neighbors from the Tidwell Road area were disappointed by this decision. When Commissioner Harrell announced the decision, some in the audience gasped in disbelief. Many believed that the development would lower their quality of life. Pappagallo believed that the mosque would just add to the list of problems in the area, saying, “We have sex crime. We have an issue with gang activity. We struggle with a lot of things in our area and this is just adding to the problems and issues that we have” (Arrington 2009, Oct 3). During a break after the vote was announced, Commissioner Harrell spoke to residents about the decision. A few of the residents challenged his decision and one woman vowed to make sure he doesn’t get re-elected.

Several months later, on March 4, the commission voted 5-0 to deny a request by the HIC to hold a public hearing about sewer requirements (LaRenzie 2010, Mar 10). Commissioner Harrell and the board agreed that a public sewer for the mosque was the best option. The hearing would have reviewed a Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision to deny a sewer variance for a private septic tank. However, this decision did little to deter Saeb and the mosque members. “At the end of the day, we certainly suffered a delay and we actually had to pay for the soil test,” Saeb said. “But that’s pretty much all that it does for us” (LaRenzie 2010, Mar 10).

Meanwhile, opponents of the mosque were challenging the matter in court. Val Knudson of the Tidwell Road Neighborhood Residents felt like the commissioners made a mistake. The group’s writ of certiorari, or petition to the Forsyth County Superior Court include concerns like traffic, and underestimation of the congregation size (LaRenzie 2010, Mar 10). The group has gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition opposing the mosque. However, Saeb, the chairman of HIC, was not worried and planned to go ahead with the construction plans. Additionally, George Butler , an attorney from Dahlonega representing the center said he received a letter from Pappagallo's attorney asking for conditions that were over the top and couldn’t be taken seriously. One of those conditions includes a stipulation that Hamzah pays neighbors “$20,000 per 24-inch tree that may happen to die for any cause within three years of construction if its within 50 feet of the common boundary” (Arrington 2009, Oct 3). The letter also asked that the mosque’s Sunday school classes for children be allowed only between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Fridays.

In July of 2012, the HIC began holding its first prayers and classes in a temporary building on the site of its future permanent home in south Forsyth. Prayers have been going peacefully and the neighborhood is quiet. As the HIC members settle into the new Tidwell Road location, memories of the opposition fade. Traffic-wise, there has not been an issue. For those who had some fear of the unknown, outreach efforts and the openness of the center have made some of those concerns go away. The center has begun forming connections with the Cumming First United Methodist Church. Communications director of CFUM, Neida Streit has led her group class to visit the mosque for night time lectures and have also done a prayer walk on the site (LaRenzie 2012, Jan 31). The two churches plan to hold a soccer tournament for their youth groups and a cultural event for adults and families.

Collection

Citation

“Alpharetta, GA,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed May 20, 2022, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/5.

Output Formats