Bigotry or safety?
By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter
Wajahat Sayeed said there was simply no reason to say no.
So when the Plainfield Village Board voted 3-2 last week to deny a rezoning that would have put Sayeed one step closer to converting a building to a school, he suspected other motives for the decision. The Furqaan Academy president said he suspects it’s because he is building an Islamic school and called the board’s action “unfair” and “bigoted.” Both the Plan Commission and village staff gave the rezoning a favorable recommendation.
But village trustee Garrett Peck, who voted against the rezoning, said his vote had nothing to do with religion and was linked to safety concerns. He said the building at 14912 S. Eastern Ave., in Plainfield is about 90 feet from railroad tracks which regularly have heavy traffic.
While Sayeed says a flawed hearing process and prejudice is evident, village trustees say the rules were followed and that they are disappointed at being portrayed as intolerant.
Sayeed said the board voted on the rezoning without any discussion or questions, and board members didn’t give the reasons behind their votes. An approval of the rezoning would have led to the next step in the process, he said, which would be for a special use permit to renovate the building into a school. The academy opened last year at a temporary location in Bolingbrook and had 33 students enrolled from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Sayeed said they’re estimating 60 students for the 2009-2010 school year. The board didn’t discuss the school’s merits for a special use permit because of the rezoning denial, he said.
“If we had a fair hearing we would probably be OK with it,” he said.
Plainfield Mayor Michael P. Collins, who presides over the village board meetings, said rezoning doesn’t require a board hearing, according to municipal code, after a public hearing is held at the Plan Commission level. The proposal did receive a hearing at Plan Commission, Sayeed said. The special use permit received a favorable recommendation from village staff but the Plan Commission had a split vote, with the majority of the commission voting against the permit and the school’s site plans. Collins said there was nothing unusual about the village board’s meeting. Board members occasionally give their reasons before a vote, but are not required to.
“I know there’s been inferences by the applicant that the board had other reasoning, but that’s just speculation on his (Sayeed’s) part,” Collins said.
Peck, who also serves on the village’s Plan Commission, said there were no engineering, traffic, lighting, or playground plans and that records show the building contains asbestos. The trustee said he would not approve any school or facility that would endanger the lives of children. Attempts to reach trustees Margie Bonuchi and Larry Vaupel, who also voted against the rezoning, were unsuccessful.
But Sayeed said structural engineers have examined the building and they would renovate it to meet Illinois school building requirements. From inside the building the trains are not that noisy, he said, and they planned to add more sound proofing material. Sayeed said they also planned to put fences around the school. It’s ridiculous for the village trustees to think he would place students in a dangerous situation, he said, or in a school that would be too noisy for them to learn in. Sayeed said he would’ve been willing to take the village trustees on a tour of the building with engineers if they wanted more information.
Trustee Bill Lamb, who voted in favor of the rezoning, said the area has both residential and industrial zoning and that it needs to be reconciled in some way. He said it’s hard to do anything with that building because of its unusual location. Collins, who doesn’t usually vote unless there is a tie, said if he had to vote he would have denied the rezoning because the building is too close to the railroad tracks. He also noted that the trustees voted specifically on the rezoning and not against the school itself.
“If they (Furqaan Academy) find another location they would certainly be given another opportunity and consideration,” Collins said.
The school is working with its attorneys, Sayeed said, and that they’re exploring “every and all options.” He said in the past some suburbs have tried to block mosques or Islamic centers from moving into their communities but he isn’t aware of any other Islamic schools in the area that have faced resistance. In 2004, a local group waged a bitter battle with some Orland Park residents over the building of an Islamic prayer center. The Orland Park village trustees unanimously allowed a special use permit to build it, according to The Star. The Al Salam Mosque Foundation also faced opposition in 2000 when they tried to obtain a zoning permit to build in Palos Heights.
Sayeed said they chose Plainfield because there is a growing Muslim population and it seemed like a family friendly place. But after this experience, Sayeed said the school may look for another community that is more tolerant of their beliefs.
“We only wanted fairness, not special treatment,” Sayeed said. “But I don’t think we were given that fair treatment.”
Peck said he will not be intimidated by Sayeed’s allegations, nor anyone else that proposes a project that could pose a “threat to the health and safety of children.” He said no one should insinuate prejudice without any evidence “as a way to fight our system of government.”
“This kind of childish behavior only sets back our community and makes it harder for real victims to bring a case forward,” Peck said.
James Racich, a trustee who voted for the rezoning, said he is offended the trustees are being characterized as racists and unfair. He said this also affects how others view Plainfield. Although the final result isn’t what he voted for, Racich said the proposed rezoning went through the democratic process and that the decision should be respected. Racich said he has no problem with an Islamic school and that he has always felt discrimination against any group is wrong. Plainfield has Lutheran and Catholic schools, he said, and the community is open to embracing diverse beliefs.
“We have room for difference,” he said.
SIDEBAR: What is an Islamic school?
Wajahat Sayeed, president of Furqaan Academy, said an Islamic school is similar to a Catholic school. He said students at Islamic schools learn from curriculum that meets state standards and are also offered lessons such as Arabic. Just as Catholicism is infused in the learning experience, Sayeed said Islamic culture and religion is part of helping students develop their religious identities. He said the Chicago area has 15 other Islamic schools and that the Muslim community has been well established here for many years.