Controvery still surrounds approval of Eagle school reuse as a mosque.
The controversy over the sale of the former Eagle Elementary school to the Islamic Cultural Center (ICA) continues to heat up with the battle centering on three fronts: the ongoing lawsuit to halt the sale, the Thomas More Law Center request for a grand jury investigation, and West Bloomfield Township Planning Commission and Wetlands Review Board hearings.
The court case filed by Farmington Hills residents in late July 2011 was derailed by a September 2011 ruling in Oakland County Circuit Court that plaintiffs Eugene Greenstein and Melvyn Sternfeld had no standing to challenge the sale. The ruling was quickly appealed and both sides filed briefs last December, but the case has seen no action.
That Farmington Public Schools (FPS) and ICA were negotiating for the sale of the building and property, while the district continued to publicly insist the building was not for sale and would be demolished, is at the heart of the lawsuit.
With the appeal pending, the Eagle sale closed on Jan. 12, 2012, but the $1.1 million due the district for the property has been sitting in escrow — along with the property deed. Last month, FPS urged the court to expedite action on the case because it would like its money and the ICA would like to move forward with its plans for the property. Oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for Sept. 12. If the ruling on the standing is overturned, the case will be able to proceed and can be decided on its merits.
Grand Jury Request
At the same time, the Thomas More Law Center, a religious conservative public interest law firm in Ann Arbor, is trying a different tack, calling on Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to appoint a grand jury to investigate the sale.
At an Aug. 8 community meeting organized by the More Center and held at Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, more than 150 people heard a series of presentations regarding the lawsuit and the request for a grand jury. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the More Center, repeated his charge that there was a “fog of corruption” in the district.
Thompson said that initially he had no interest in the case, believing it to be an ordinary zoning concern, but after investigation decided to become involved because “it was an issue of national security.” In support, Thompson claimed the ICA is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas because of past and current relations with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT).
The program began with Bruce Burwell, senior pastor at Light of the World Christian Center that meets in West Bloomfield, saying he was discouraged from bidding on the property by an FPS administrator who told him “the building was not suitable to purchase” and that it would be demolished and the land sold. FPS has claimed that while there were inquiries about the property, there were no formal bids except for an unsolicited bid made by the ICA.
A More Center attorney then laid out its case.
“All citizens who value public transparency and accountability should welcome an independent grand jury investigation into this public school system scandal that has cost the students and taxpayers so dearly,” the More Center says on its website, under a section titled “Creeping Sharia (Islamic law) the Islamization of America” with a picture of the Twin Towers pre-9/11.
Robert Davis of Davis Burket Savage Listman and Brennan, the plaintiff’s attorney from Mt. Clemens, also spoke. Davis encouraged people in the audience to attend the township hearings scheduled for the following week to express their displeasure.
B’nai Moshe has received some blowback for renting the facility to the More Center, leading synagogue president Dan Sperling of West Bloomfield to clarify in various online forums and in a letter to the Jewish News (page 5) that the congregation has no position on the lawsuit nor the claims of the More Center and the school district, and was simply renting a room for a program as it often does.
The same evening as the More Center program, the ICA held an open house for the community at the property. More than 40 people attended and heard from ICA leadership, including board member Majeed Kadi of West Bloomfield, as well as Roger Young of Young & Young Architects of Bloomfield Hills. The proposed plans for the property were part of a PowerPoint presentation and artists renderings were placed on easels around the room. Signs for the open house were placed outside the building a few days earlier, and contacts were made with residents living within 300 feet of the former school property. Reportedly, additional open houses are in the works.
West Bloomfield Meetings
While challenges to the sale continue, attention also has shifted to West Bloomfield Township, where site plans need an OK from the wetlands board and building plans need special land use approval from the planning commission before going to the township board for overall approval. On Aug. 14, the commission and board met with more than 125 people packing the township’s public meeting room and spilling out into the hallway and another overflow room. The back-to-back meetings lasted nearly five hours, including a short break.
Several members of the wetlands board expressed concerns about the placement and function of a detention pond in the rear of the property, which would send water under Middlebelt Road into the Rouge River. While the property currently is not up to code regarding water runoff, it was decided early in the hearing that an onsite visit would be necessary for members to fully understand the plan and consider other options. The request for the approval of the site plan was tabled, and the public was invited to the “onsite” scheduled for 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 9.
At the planning commission meeting, Senior Planner Sara Roediger explained that the commission’s role was limited to answering four questions:
• Is the use of the property compatible with existing uses of the area?
• Would the plans interfere with orderly development in the area?
• Are there issues of safety and vehicular traffic?
• Do the plans meet ordinance requirements?
Roediger offered that a staff review showed that the plans “meet 100 percent of our ordinance requirements” and appeared to exceed them. The FPS was exempt from township ordinance and had not kept the property up to code during the more than 50 years it ran the elementary school, necessitating many changes.
A question came up about the lawsuit against FPS now on appeal. Commission members and township staff said they were not aware of the lawsuit and there was some confusion as to whether the ICA was in possession of the deed to the property. The district’s attorney was asked to look into the legal status of the property’s ownership, with several commission members and later audience members expressing concern that action could not be taken until the issue was clarified and the deed in the ICA’s possession.
Architect Roger Young reviewed architectural maps and filed documents to explain that 72 percent of the existing building will remain. The area where part of the building will be demolished will be used to erect a mosque and minaret expected to rise more than 40 feet — about four stories high — next to a banquet center. The mosque portion will be the part of the building closest to the corner of Middlebelt and 14 Mile Roads.
Nabil Suliman, a member of the ICA, spoke on behalf of the proposal explaining that the cost of the new building and property improvements would approach $6 million, and that there would be three phases of the project, which could take four to six years to complete, resulting in a building of more than 52,000 squre feet.
Suliman said he has been part of the ICA for more than 20 years and that “it has no affiliation or partnership with any national or international organization.”
“We have nothing to hide; we are in the open,” he said, explaining that the ICA is made up of professionals, primarily physicians and businessmen from Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills and Franklin. “We are not bringing in outsiders. We are an active part of society.
“We need a mosque. This is a priority for the community,” Suliman said. “We need a center for our youth to meet, and we need an educational facility … Our greatest objective in the project is meeting the needs for our youth and providing them a safe environment.”
Following questions from planning commission members about funding, development plans, timetables and the uses of the building, community members had their chance to address the commission at about 10:30 p.m.
Several individuals spoke to concerns that the treatment of the ICA and opposition to the sale were products of anti-Muslim bigotry. Jewish community members on both sides of the issue referenced historic discrimination against Jews to either support the ICA or explain they were sensitive to bigotry but nonetheless opposed the project.
The most common concerns expressed were that the building would not fit in with the area, that already heavy intersection traffic would become worse, and that proposed parking was insufficient for the size of the building. The commission asked staff to review the traffic study submitted with the special land use request.
Following the Sept. 9 onsite visit of the Wetlands Review Board, the next public discussion of the request for site plan and special land use approval will be held at the township offices beginning at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 23. The sessions will be a continuation of the public hearings and will again entertain public comments.
By Don Cohen, Contributing Writer