Some emails about proposed Overland Park Islamic center hint at anti-Muslim sentiment, others show open arms

An early rendering of part of the proposed Hedaya Islamic Community Center. More detailed plans are expected to come before the city in the coming months.

It was a blip of a moment during a long, contentious planning committee meeting in Overland Park. The room was packed with people waiting for their agenda item – a proposed Hedaya Islamic center campus near 163rd Terrace and Roe Avenue — to come up for public comment. There were twelve items to go.

The woman stepped up to the podium, apologized for being late, and launched into a potentially controversial comment. But by the time she got to the word “mosque,” the commission and a murmuring crowd shushed her. Come back later, when that item is up, they said. She never did.

Later, speakers were warned that they must limit their comments to traffic, noise and other planning concerns. No one else had anything negative to say about Islam.

But were they thinking it, just the same?

To try to find out, the Post looked into 121 emails sent to city planning officials just before and after the hearing for the preliminary plan of the Hedaya Islamic Community Center.

The outcome is mixed.

Plans for land shifted from Christian to Islamic campus

Only two months after city leaders and residents wrote a long-range visioning plan calling for more diversity, Forward OP is facing a major test. As United Methodist Church of the Resurrection founder Adam Hamilton noted after the report’s release, young adults want and expect more diversity in their communities than Johnson County has typically offered. So some city leaders and residents have been keeping an eye on reaction to the proposed project that could draw Muslims from across the metro area.

What the Hedaya center proposes is a building project similar to some of the area’s larger churches. There would be a 110,876-square-foot center to be used as a school (Kindergarten through eighth grade) and a mosque. A two-story banquet hall of 16,000 square feet is also proposed.

The area already has the correct zoning. In fact a church with building plans owned the property until recently. But the Cambridge Church announced in 2014 that it would close its doors after 18 years. Neighbors of the project say they had no objections to the church, which some imagined would be small and “quaint.”

However, the multi-building center brought so many of them out to protest that every city hall parking space was filled and an overflow room had to be opened.

Neighborhood speakers at the commission insisted that their objections were not because the church has become a mosque. They say the use is just too intense for the wooded area, and that they have no qualms with Islam.

‘Their goal is to bring sharia law’

But according to the emails, that’s not 100% true. In fact there were several comments that suggested the opposite. And one older man contacted by the Post said that based on literature he’d read from a conservative source, he equated Islam with murder and jihad. He was so terrified of retribution, he asked that his name not be used for fear he come to physical harm.

Emails sent to public officials are considered to be part of the public record. Even so, the city is allowed to redact the contact information of the writers. An unsuccessful attempt was made to find working phone numbers for many of the writers.

There were some less-than-subtle hints of Islamaphobia. One woman shared her view that the religion hates Jews, Christians and homosexuals. “Please do not be deceived, she wrote. “Their goal is to bring sharia law to destroy our hard fought freedoms in the USA!”

More than one also questioned why the center chose that location, where few Muslims live, when there’s already a mosque at 151st Street. There was concern that the center would draw mostly from outside the area, although that concern focused mainly on the amount of traffic on the roads.

Some others, while stating their concerns were about the traffic and proximity to homes, used hyperbolic language. One called the center “disastrous” and a “tragedy.” Another said he was sure 50 neighbors in his “proud community” would move out if the plans come to fruition. “I think everyone moved to the area for what it portrayed and what it represents as a community and environment. A suburban feel with a beautiful surrounding and quiet trust. The idea of commercializing and/or amending this enormous section is a heavy and uneasy feeling of change.”

‘Don’t let the narrow-minded folks rule the day’

But such sentiments were limited to a small minority of the writers. Most who were against the project did stick to planning concerns about the traffic it would add to an already over-crowded street during school drop-offs, or that the noise would ruin the “haven of tranquility” and wildlife habitat provided by the trees for which the nearby Wilderness homes association is named.

Even so, a couple of writers were suspicious of those given reasons. Said one man, “I get the feeling folks are riled up about the thought of Muslims entering the community and are complaining under the guise of noise pollution (non-existent calls to prayer?) xenophobia, ignorance and hatred…. It’s a house of worship in an area zoned for it, previously owned by a church group. Who’s surprised here? …There’s no reason not to allow these folks in if it’s zoned for it, etc…Why not? Let ‘em in. Don’t let the narrow-minded folks rule the day.”

Another couple expressed similar thoughts, saying that as a mixed-race non-Muslim couple, they had fears about racism and discrimination before moving to Kansas, but were encouraged by the growing diversity of Johnson County. None of the opponents’ objections to the center are insurmountable, they wrote.

“It’s been disappointing to us that some residents who oppose the faith center are engaging in a misinformation campaign – flyers appearing on doorsteps without contact information, comments made on social media that mysteriously disappear. This lack of transparency serves no one, while it does everything to muddy Overland Park’s name with racist overtones.”

Military veterans have weighed in on both sides. During the planning commission hearing, an Army veteran of Iraq worried that the extra noise and activity from the center would affect her post-traumatic stress disorder. And one man who said he is an Air Force veteran said the “massive two-story complex” was too close to homes. “My future has become something of no significance,” he wrote.

On the other hand, there was support from one former military emailer. “I have nothing but respect for those (in the) Islamic community and would rather an education center and Islamic mosque be built than more apartments in that area,” he wrote.

One property owner north of the proposed center wrote that he’d have no problem with the Islamic center because it’s similar to two other faith centers he lives across the street from – Church of the Resurrection and St. Michael the Archangel. His office is also near the mosque at 151st Street, he said, and there have been no adverse effects there.

Somewhat lost in the public conversation has been the voice of the people who would use the center. Only one Muslim woman stood up at the planning commission meeting to say what the center would mean in the Muslim community. Otherwise, media inquiries have been referred to a paralegal at the Polsinelli law firm who has not responded.

Muslim community says center would fill a void

But Muslim supporters represented almost half of the emails to the city. Many of them were identically worded, but a few writers took a minute to add some of their own comments.

“I know first-hand that these community centers are establishing the next generation of responsible citizens who contribute to local communities and making a positive impact to our local economy and environment overall,” one person wrote.

One writer, who said he’s resided in Overland Park since 1987, said the center would fill a void for the growing Muslim community and would provide one thing he and his wife did not have when their children were young. “(The center) will provide a place for families to get together for family and religious events as well as provide the young with an educational environment that will strengthen their religious faith and become upstanding citizens upon growing up,” he wrote. “The Muslim community in Overland Park has grown to a point that it feels the need, more strongly than ever, for an educational institution to serve in the upbringing of our youth.”

Another Muslim writer tried to reassure residents that the center would not be disruptive. He said it would be busiest between 12:15 and 2 p.m. on Fridays, and that it would not conflict with the school pick-up and drop-off times at Blue River Elementary and Blue Valley Middle schools.

Also, the center would not reach full capacity for about 20 years, because the Muslim community is not yet that big, he said.

He and some others also pointed out that Muslims generally have high education and income levels and are well represented in jobs like physician, engineering and information technology. The center could potentially add to property values in the area, he said.

“As a Muslim, if I expected this to be a busy thriving development in the next few years, I would have bought a house in that area. This project seems like it is planning far into the future. There is nothing wrong with that and it should not be downsized based on the current needs of the local Muslim population.”

Meanwhile, plans for the center are proceeding. Although opponents said they collected 477 signatures against the center, only one protest petition – with one signature – was filed. It was declared invalid because the property owner was outside of the 200-foot requirement.

The center and attorney Doug Patterson, who represents the neighbors, are meeting to hash out some design differences before submitting a more detailed development plan. That should be done in about a month, Patterson said.