County Council OKs Islamic community center in Lemay

Center attorneys hope to settle suit against county

By BURKE WASSON

Construction of an Islamic community center in Lemay previously turned down by the County Council now has the county’s support.

The County Council voted unanimously Aug. 14 in favor of a resolution supporting the planned 25,000-square-foot Islamic center on Lemay Ferry Road.

Because of the growing Bosnian community in south county, the Islamic Community Center of St. Louis chose an area near Mehlville Senior High School and across from Lemay Plaza to open the new center.

The community center is the second Muslim establishment on Lemay Ferry Road to be approved this year. The Bosnian Islamic Center of St. Louis bought a building a few miles from the new center, and services at the mosque will begin in the fall.

Councilmen previously voted down the use of a conditional-use permit to operate the Islamic community center because representatives with the Islamic Community Center of St. Louis had not provided re-quested traffic and architectural studies.

But now that organizers are willing to share that information, Sixth District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county — who represents the district where the Islamic center will be constructed — was willing to change his previous “no” vote to “yes.”

“This resolution that we’re doing, we’re hoping we can work together,” Campisi told a group of the Islamic center’s supporters at the council’s Aug. 14 meeting. “This is something that I always have asked for from the beginning. Whether it got goofed up in translation or whatever the thing may be, you have to understand that we as council members are accountable to all of the constituents that are in the area. So when a council member doesn’t get the information he’s asking for or she’s asking for, we have to answer to our constituents.”

Campisi said he has received numerous phone calls from residents complaining about the additional traffic the Islamic center would bring to an area that already has a high school and shopping centers.

But county officials have determined that because the expected volume of traffic at the Islamic center would likely result in “substantially fewer” vehicles than a fast-food restaurant previously approved at the site, Lemay Ferry Road can handle the additional motorists driving to the community center.

The resolution approved by the County Council further states that the Islamic center can operate between 5:30 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Additionally, the resolution states the county Department of Planning will oversee the site’s conditions to make sure the center “is compatible with the residential nature of the surrounding area.” The Islamic Community Center of St. Louis will also provide a landscape plan to address “unsightly conditions” at the site.

Now that the community center’s representatives will adhere to those provisions, Campisi told the center’s supporters that he is also in favor.

“I’m glad you’re finally willing to come up with the information that we’re asking for,” Campisi said. “And if we’re able to do that, you have my support. I’m supporting this resolution and hoping that we can work together.”

While the Muslim group has a pending lawsuit against the county in response to the County Council’s previous denial of a conditional use permit with R-4 residential zoning for the center, attorneys representing the center now hope to settle that suit and move on to developing the community center.

The County Council previously voted 4-3 against the Islamic Community Center’s request to rezone the 4.72-acre tract it bought for $1.25 million.

Campisi was joined by 4th District Council Chairman Mike O’Mara, D-north county, 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, against the proposal.

But during the County Council’s Aug. 7 meeting, Wasinger said she would like to introduce a resolution showing the council’s support for the Islamic center as long as concerns about traffic and hours of operation were alleviated.

Before the council voted on the resolution last week, several St. Louis area residents and interfaith supporters asked its members to support the resolution and allow the Islamic center to open in Lemay.

“We are all a nation of immigrants,” said Fenton resident and St. Louis University microbiology professor Gul Shah. “Some of us are old immigrants like you and I. Some of us are new immigrants like our Bosnian brothers and sisters, who were forced out of their homeland. Let’s extend a hand today. Give them the choice to build this community center. And I assure you, take my word for it, we are together going to make America a much better place. It’s a great country, and we are going to make it greater.”

The Rev. Martin Rafanan, a Lutheran minister and also a cabinet member of the Interfaith Partnership, told the council that through his work with Imam Muhamed Hasic, a spiritual leader for the Islamic Community Center of St. Louis, he has seen a man of integrity.

With that in mind, Rafanan said he is confident that the Islamic community center in Lemay only will benefit the community.

“For many years, I’ve had the opportunity of working with different religious communities in St. Louis in order to build a better St. Louis and a better nation — not just for some of us, but for all of us,” Rafanan said. “This is a work that many have engaged in.

“And I have had the privilege also over the last couple of years of working with Imam Hasic and with his congregation. And I can tell you that he is a man of great integrity. And his congregation has served our community well and they will continue to serve our community well. So I ask you and I encourage you to please support them as they build a place from which they can serve our community even better. I ask you to give them the opportunity to make St. Louis a better place for all of us.”

County Director of Planning Glenn Powers has estimated that 572 vehicles will be entering and leaving the Islamic community center during weekdays.

That number is less than the figure of more than 4,000 vehicles that county officials estimated would be going in and out of the site for a previously planned fast-food restaurant at the same location.