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Willmar, Minn., Planning Commission approves conditional use for mosque at former school

Doris Barnes raises concerns Wednesday during a meeting before the Willmar Planning Commission on a conditional use permit requested by the Islamic Society of Willmar to allow a mosque at the former Lafayette Elementary School. Barnes, who lives near the former school on the city's northwest side, said she was concerned about the impact of the Ramadan holiday on the area. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Planning Commission Wednesday night approved a conditional use permit requested by the Islamic Society of Willmar to allow an Islamic mosque at the former Lafayette Elementary School at 1112 Lake Ave. N.W.

After taking comments for and against the permit from the public during a hearing at the Fire Station meeting room, the commission voted to approve the permit with two conditions: that the Islamic Society must have a site parking plan approved by the city engineer, and that there be no outside music after 9 p.m.

The neighborhood where the former school is located is zoned R-2 for single-family and twin-home residences, and houses of worship are an allowable use with a conditional use permit within that zoning area, according to the city zoning ordinance.

The commissioners had no objections to the seven affirmative findings that they must consider when approving a conditional use permit.

Those include: no factual demonstration of substantial or appreciable negative impact on neighborhood property values; that adequate measures have or will be taken to provide ingress and egress to minimize traffic congestion and maximize public safety; and that the conditional use will be maintained in a manner that is compatible with the existing or intended character of the neighborhood.

The society intends to buy the building and the block on which the building sits contingent upon receiving the permit. The building is currently owned by Wells Fargo Bank, according to attorney Ray Waechter of Willmar, who represents the society.

Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services, said the commission's permit approval will be part of the commission's minutes. The minutes are included in the City Council's consent agenda.

If the council approves the consent agenda, the permit will be approved. However, the council could pull the minutes from the consent agenda and consider and take action on the minutes separately from the consent agenda, he said.

The council meets again April 2.

Islamic Society spokesman Abdirizak Mahboub said the building will be used for worship, religious education, adult education, English education and child care. He said Islam is one of the world's three major religions and he said the building will be used as a house of worship like other churches.

He said there would not be any negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood and said the property has sufficient parking space. He said the society did not intend to change the building but would enhance it to make it more beneficial.

Planning Commission Chair Mark Klema opened the hearing for residents to speak in favor of or object to the permit.

John Cola, who has lived on the north side since 1998, was one of the 57 people attending the hearing and said he welcomed the new neighbors and looked forward to seeing the building being used again, referring to a former daycare there that closed last November after going through a foreclosure.

Council members Denis Anderson and Bruce DeBlieck, who represent the north side, mentioned constituent concerns that the property be maintained, that it not be a detriment to the neighborhood and that loudspeakers not be used to announce worship.

Other comments centered on the number of people who would be using the building, outside use of the building and the number of vehicles that might use the streets for parking.

Peterson said churches have traditionally used on-street parking after maximizing their property for parking.

Waechter said there would be no outside loud speakers, and that attendance during worship, which occurs on Friday, would be 50 or fewer people, except during special observances.

Doris Barnes expressed concerns about the number of people attending Ramadan affecting the area and about kids staying up all night using the park. Mahboub said the society will not let kids run around. He said worship will take place inside and said there would be no calls to worship.

Jackie Wieberdink said she has no problem with the religion but said she had had problems with people parking in front of her driveway. Also, she said noises echo in the building and she raised concerns about vehicle headlights shining into her house at night.

After the meeting, Mahboub said he thought the meeting went well.

"It's really great to live in this country and democracy. People can oppose whether they like it or not. That's up to individual rights that people have,'' he said.

"The Willmar community spoke out and very clearly the (Planning Commission) has approved the mosque in Willmar, so this is a great thing generally speaking for the whole Willmar community,'' he said.

"It's part of the fabric of the community now to have a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple. This is part of the growing community and it's great for all of us.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150