Islamic center plan advances in Afton
For the past five years the Islamic Society of Woodbury-East Metro has held worship services in a 2,500-square-foot office space on Commerce Drive in Woodbury.
However, as the congregation grew it needed a larger place of worship, one to call its own.
“We believe that they need a place where they can not only get religious education but get together with others of their same faith,” said Irfan Ali, Islamic Society spokesman. “Come pray or play.”
In 2013 the Islamic Society took the first step toward finding a place of its own by purchasing a 29-acre parcel at 12585 Hudson Road in Afton.
It cleared a major hurdle April 4 when the Afton Planning Commission recommended approval of a conditional-use permit for a 10,800-square-foot community and worship center.
“It was very encouraging,” Ali said. “We are really excited about this and we look forward to blending into the community.”
Afton allows for places of worship within its rural residential zoning district. The Islamic Society site is a former hobby farm.
“We found this property that seemed to fit what we needed,” Ali said. “It was big enough and we would have enough room for our kids to enjoy the open space out there.”
The Islamic Society’s center would include a 4,200-square-foot multipurpose hall for religious services, educational events, youth activities and social services.
“If you look across the Twin Cites, we would be one of the bigger ones,” Ali said, “but nationally we’re very small.”
The center primarily will be used for Friday worship services, weekend school and weekend social events. Services typically are attended by 150 to 200 people and weekend events typically serve the same number.
“We don't have a formal membership, people come and go,” Ali said. “It’ll be used seven days a week in some way or another.”
The Islamic Society also proposes a recreational area, near an existing house it purchased, for picnics, a community garden and other recreational activities.
About 20 acres of the property will remain agricultural.
“We are part of the same community as you, we just happen to have a different faith,” Ali said. “We want to build a longterm relationship and we invite all of you to come to our place and interact with us and see what we're all about.”
The Islamic center would be open to people of all faiths and place a strong emphasis on social services, including a food shelf.
Islamic Society members are raising $500,000 to help fund the building project.
Ali said the Islamic Society wants the center completed before Ramadan in 2017, which will begin the end of May.
Standing-room-only hearingPlanning commissioners voted on the conditional use permit following a public hearing before a standing-room-only crowd.
“Thank you everyone for being very civil,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Barbara Ronningen said.
Afton City Clerk Kim Swanson Linner estimated there were 67 people in attendance, putting City Hall at its 76-person capacity when commissioners and staff were included.
City Hall was full 15 minutes before the commission meeting, and a Washington County sheriff’s deputy stood at the entrance to City Hall keeping count of the number of people in attendance.
Ronningen had ground rules for the hearing.
“Please limit comments to the land use, nothing else,” she said, “and you know what I'm talking about.”
While most public comments related to the permit application, such as lighting, noise, parking and traffic concerns, a few comments focused on the Islamic Society itself.
“I encourage you to approve this application,” Imam Asad Zaman said. “They do good work, they have gone out of their way to do interfaith dialogue, which we know is sorely needed.”
“Having the mosque there is a real benefit to our community,” Naima Khan said. “They helped me feel less socially isolated and discover my own religious identity.”
Not everyone supported the project.
“There’s not a substantial Muslim community in Afton,” Jay Sperry said. “This is an outside source.”
Commissioner Mark Nelson was concerned with the number of people who would use the center regularly.
“It sounds to me like there's a lot of activity on a rural residential lot,” he said.
Commissioner Judy Seeberger said it’s no different than Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, located near the proposed center.
“There's people coming and going all the time,” she said. “That's par for the course of what a house of worship is all about.”
Nelson also made a comment regarding the Muslim tradition of having a “call to worship,” which is essentially a form of song.
Ali indicated that the center will not have any amplified noise outside and all call-to-worship activities will occur inside the center.
Nelson raised the possibility of prohibiting any outside call to worship, whether it’s amplified or not, but City Attorney Fritz Knaak advised that would violate federal law.
“You can't prohibit speech or song based on the context,” he said. “If someone wants to sing at the top of their lungs outside, you can't prohibit them.”
The audience erupted into cheers when the commission recommended approving the permit. The application goes to the Afton City Council for approval April 19.
“I recognize the residents have concerns and these are all real planning concerns,” said Jaylani Hussein, from Council on American-Islamic Relations, who spoke during the public hearing. “There is change coming to Afton and it’s something that the Muslim community is celebrating and we hope it’s something that the Afton community can celebrate.
“It’s a question of welcoming a new neighbor.”