Planning or Prejudice?
Michigan Islamic Academy vs Pittsfield
by James Leonard
"We just want to build a nice school," says Tarek Nahlawi.
Nahlawi is a board member of the Michigan Islamic Academy, located on Plymouth Rd. in Ann Arbor. MIA hopes to build a new school at the corner of Ellsworth and Golfside. But Pittsfield Township denied the needed rezoning--so MIA and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are suing the township in federal court.
Brothers Mohammad and Said Issa put together a group that bought the 26.7-acre property in foreclosure in 2010, and then donated it to the academy. Board member Nahlawi says they were "absolutely clear" with the township. "Before buying the property, we met with them [township officials] and explained our intentions. We wanted to build a school, and then a community center in a few years. And we asked them, 'What do we need to do, is there anything we need to do?'
"We talked to their legal counsel to find out what we had to do to get the rezoning [for the property]," Nahlawi continues. "They said if we meet all the requirements, then fine. We said, 'If there are any issues--traffic, anything you can think of--tell us, and we'll go somewhere else.'
"We met or exceeded the requirements. Whatever they wanted, we'd do. We moved the school from the back of the property to the front. We changed the lighting. We did an extended traffic study ... We deserve to go there, and we need to know the reasons why they won't let us."
It's harder to get Pittsfield's side since they won't talk. Beyond noting that the township is diverse and includes the Jewel Heart Buddhist temple plus two Hindu centers, supervisor Mandy Grewal will say only that Pittsfield has a policy of not commenting on open litigation--which means she won't say anything for months.
The township planning commission opposed the rezoning based on the traffic the school would create. Neighbor and Ann Arbor developer Ed Shaffran says that was the right call. "I live on
Golfside, and with the school that's there already [the charter school Fortis Academy], it's tough getting around. During the morning and afternoon school hours, it's pretty congested. You have to be cautious because people are parked all over the place. And when they have events there with four, five, six hundred kids and their families, it's impossible.
"I was at a couple of the public meetings," Shaffran adds, "and I made comments that referred to the township's master plan. Just recently, the board of trustees inked a two-year master plan [that] calls for the preservation of the existing housing stock. The property is zoned residential and it has been for eons, and they're asking it to be rezoned.
"I applaud the township's decision because I want it to remain housing," Shaffran concludes. "In my opinion, the township has listened to the will of the people and is standing behind their master plan."
Lena Masri, the CAIR attorney handling the case, says residential development under the present zoning could bring in more traffic than the school would. And she believes a law passed in 2000 trumps Pittsfield's master plan: "The federal Religious Institutions Land Use Protection Act says that a zoning commission cannot deny based on technical reasons alone, that if a religious institution is qualified, rezoning cannot be denied unless there's a compelling governmental reason," she says.
Masri says her organization got involved because "we were concerned about the bias and hostility shown at the public meetings. We were concerned that the township's decision to deny was based on religious discrimination and ethnic bias."
That's a serious charge, and it won't be settled soon--"it could be years" before the suit is resolved, Masri says. "And the Department of Justice has launched an investigation as well, so we're dependent to a certain extent on that."What does the MIA want? "Just a school," replies Masri. "No mosque. The original plan was for a community center and a school, but now, just a school."
[Originally published in May, 2012.]