To say the proposed Islamic Life Center at 141st Street and Shelborne Road has garnered a lot of attention is a bit of an understatement.
Not only did approximately 300 people show up to a Carmel Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Jan. 22, but the BZA has received 946 letters in opposition and 955 letters in support of the project. Because the story was picked up by national news sites, some letters come from people who live elsewhere in Indiana, outside the state or even outside the United States.
Many of the letters from outside of Carmel are focused on religion. But those who live next to the development say their concerns simply address zoning issues, plain and simple.
Alan Irvin, a resident of Shelborne Road, said he thinks the mosque could be a “real asset to our community” but in a “more suitable site in Carmel.”
“I’m concerned that my opposition and that of my neighbors is being misconstrued as intolerance of this organization’s message or purpose,” he said. “We mean no slight or offense. Some proponents have unfairly insinuated that anyone opposed to this development necessarily is uninformed or biased against this group. Religion is not the issue.”
Carmel City Councilor Laura Campbell, who represents the area, said she supports the remonstrators who oppose this project because she doesn’t believe that the location is appropriate for a project of this size and scale.
“People on social media and in the general media have chosen to accuse the residents of discrimination, which is not the case,” she said. “The residents represent a diverse range of religions and nationalities. Accusing people of discrimination is an easy way to shut down a conversation when one has a weak defense of their own point of view.”
Campbell said the letters of remonstrance come from a very diverse group of people, some even coming from people with Islamic backgrounds.
Some neighbors said they have received online attacks and threats from all across the nation because they’ve voiced their opposition to the project.
Ashhar Madni, vice president for the board of trustees of the Al Salam Foundation, said there has been some misunderstanding about what the Islamic Life Center will be. Nonetheless, he said nobody at Al Salam is accusing the remonstrators of being bigots.
“I think their concerns are about traffic and other issues,” he said. “I don’t think they’re opposed because of religion. Some might be unfamiliar with a mosque since it would be new to Carmel, but we can educate them.”
Neighbors in Overbrook Farms, just west of the project, told Campbell the Islamic Life Center would have a negative effect on traffic because Shelborne Road is narrow.
The Al Salam Foundation has agreed to purchase 15 acres of land but said it would only build on one-third of the land and would scale back previous plans that showed a much larger building. Documents from Al Salam initially showed the project including a multi-purpose prayer hall that could fit 300 to 500 worshippers, basketball courts, a soccer field, a tennis court and walking trails. A school and gym could be part of later phases.
Madni said Al Salam officials have scaled back plans, although a final version hasn’t been set. He said a gas line easement on part of the land could prevent further expansion but that Al Salam had to buy the entire site as part of the deal. Madni said the foundation has tried unsuccessfully for years to find a place for a mosque in Carmel and that some landowners have been unwilling to sell because of the proposed religious use.
Madni said the foundation has been willing to make adjustments on lighting, building height and more.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.
Some neighbors in Overbrook Farms shared photos of their own backyards, which show the Islamic Life Center’s parking lot directly backing up to their homes.
The area where the Islamic Life Center would be located is zoned S-1, meaning it is planned for residential development unless a special exemption, such as for a religious use, is granted. Neighbors said they know the field won’t remain empty, but they’d like to see single-family homes on the property instead.
Those in support of the project have said they don’t think there would be this kind of opposition if a church were proposed instead of a mosque, but Campbell said that’s not a fair comparison. She pointed to a similar situation in Fishers when iTown Christian Church submitted a proposal to build on Gray Eagle Golf Course. There was significant remonstrance against that project because residents didn’t feel it was an appropriate use of the land. The church found another parcel and had the full support of the community to construct at that location.
“There has been much comparison of other churches in the area, but those churches are on larger pieces of land with substantial buffers,” Campbell said. “The Coptic Church was approved in 2012, before the neighborhoods to the south. The Coptic Church is on a larger parcel of land, and people building homes in those neighborhoods knew that a church was going to be built there. It has taken some time for the church to be built, but again, the church came before the neighborhood.”
The BZA will meet again Feb. 26 to gather additional public feedback and possibly vote on the project.