Overflow crowd shows up at planning commission meeting to voice opinions on proposed Overland Park Islamic center

A rendering of the exterior of the center.

For years the 17-acre tract of land sat vacant at the corner of 163rd Terrace and Roe Avenue, a sign promising that one day it would be home to the Cambridge Church.

But the church never happened. Now a different group wants to build an Islamic campus including a mosque, banquet hall and school. And neighbors, who say it will clog the streets and ruin their peace and quiet, have turned out in force against it.

More than 100 neighbors and supporters of the Hedaya Islamic Community Center turned out at the Overland Park Planning Commission Monday — so many that officials had to open up an overflow conference room. A neighborhood opposition leader said there would have been an even bigger turnout had it not been spring break.

But after two hours of discussion commissioners approved a preliminary plan for the corner at 16301 Roe Avenue, next door to Blue Valley Elementary and Middle schools.

“Zoning and land use issues are not a plebiscite of the neighborhood,” said real estate lawyer John Petersen, on behalf of the applicant. Petersen emphasized that the plan proposed by the Islamic Center is very similar to the one approved in 2007 for the Cambridge Church.

“Really when you stop and think about it… this is the textbook location for a faith-based community operation,” Petersen said.

The original church plan called for a worship hall, gymnasium and sanctuary for a total of 82,000 square feet. The Islamic Center now on the table would be 110,876 square feet in two buildings. The uses include a mosque, school for Kindergarten through eighth grade and day care center. A 16,000-square-foot banquet hall would be in a separate building and would only be open to members. It would not be in use at the same time as the rest of the Islamic Center, according to planning documents.

Homeowners in neighboring subdivision organize opposition

An overhead view of the proposed layout of the campus.

Much of the opposition comes from the nearby Wilderness subdivision. Commissioners received around 100 pieces of email about the project, and neighbors collected 477 signatures on petitions opposed to it.

The crowd was warned by Planning Commission Chairman Thomas Robinett that the discussion should be limited to planning and land use issues, and that federal civil rights law protects religious land use.

Speakers generally kept to the issues or parking and neighborhood disruption, although one woman who mistakenly stood up to speak during a hearing on a different property started to question the Islamic group’s affiliations. She was stopped before she could go further.

About a dozen people spoke against the project, saying the streets are already crowded during school drop-off and pick-up times. Many who lived in the Wilderness neighborhood noted the forests, trails and wildlife that surround the area. They also questioned traffic estimates that they said were done before their neighborhood was fully built out. Some in an area with private streets worried that there would be overflow parking and traffic that would cost them more in street upkeep.

Others mentioned the noises of air conditioning units, car doors and trunks slamming shut and talking and laughing from visitors all through the week.

Attorney Doug Patterson, who spoke on behalf of the neighborhood, said cities typically give places of worship a “pass” on some of the stricter rules for commercial development. Most of the activity in a typical house of worship is limited to just a part of the week, he said. But this project is different, he said.

“If we were talking about a true place of worship that had a related hall for food and gatherings and meetings I don’t think we would be here,” Patterson said.

The mosque portion is only 16 percent of the entire project, he said. “If this facility were not sponsored by an organization affiliated with a faith,” but rather sponsored by a private developer seeking to build a school and other amenities the city would say “absolutely not,” Patterson said.

The school and banquet hall would make for too much use only 60 feet from the closest house, he said.

‘I just feel like this will really impact my daily living’

Several speakers said they had nothing against the practice of Islam, but just thought the complex would put too much commotion in their neighborhood.

“I love my Muslim friends very much,” said neighbor Amy Korf. “I have great appreciations for your faith, I do. I also am concerned about my daughter’s education. Anything that happens at night wakes us up. It’s important to me that she can go to school and concentrate.”

Holly Keenan, a neighbor of the project and an Army veteran of Iraq, said, “I specifically moved there for the quiet and serene-ness of the neighborhood.” The extra traffic and commotion would be stressful because of her post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

“I just feel like this will really impact my daily living,” she said.

There were some supporters of the project in the hearing room as well. Kaitlin Abdelrahman said Muslims have been looking for a permanent home on the Kansas side of the metro area. Abdelrahman, who was baptized a Christian in Prairie Village before converting, said, “There’s a big difference in how we practice our faith,” she said. “As a practicing Muslim we worship in everything we do,” including eating together in a banquet hall.

Lawyer Petersen echoed that, noting that church construction nowadays trends toward campuses like the Church of the Resurrection, with multiple buildings and uses.

In the end, commissioners approved the plan 9-0, saying it is a good fit and that it was similar to the original church plan.