Maine Township Islamic center proponents: ‘Neighbors will be satisfied’
Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, answers questions about his organization's proposed community center during a June 4 Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. | Jennifer Johnson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:28PM
It may be late-summer before a Park Ridge-based Islamic dietary organization learns whether it will be allowed to operate a community center along Ballard Road in unincorporated Maine Township.
The Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals met June 4 for a public forum to hear testimony regarding the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America’s request for a special-use permit to operate the Sabeel Center inside a former synagogue at 8800 W. Ballard.
Following the hearing Vice Chairman Terrence O’Brien stated that the ZBA must wait 30 days before deciding on a recommendation that will eventually go before the Cook County Board of Commissioners for a final vote. During this 30-day period the Maine Township Town Board has the option of formally objecting to the project if that is the recommendation of the local Maine Township Planning Commission.
O’Brien said the board’s decision on the special use will probably not be made until August.
Muhammad Chaudry, president of IFANCA and a Skokie resident, said the Sabeel Center will provide gathering space for members of the community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, while offering adult and youth classes, cooking demonstrations, nutritional education and a library. The center, Chaudry said, will serve as “the extension of the work we provide in Park Ridge.”
IFANCA is a nonprofit organization that certifies food as halal, or conforming with Islamic dietary laws. The organization also acts as a consultant to many food-and-beverage companies, as well as governments around the world, Chaudry said.
An estimated $1.5 million in renovations are planned for the Ballard Road building, which once housed the Maine Township Jewish Congregation Shaare Emet and has been vacant for more than two years.
Chaudry testified that the building will not be used as a mosque and no Friday services, which often generate crowds, will be held there.
“This place is not going to be used for congregational prayers,” he told the ZBA.
Attorney John Pikarski, representing IFANCA, called the Sabeel Center “one of the more begin uses the (Zoning Board) will ever see.” He pointed out that the building was previously used as a temple and school, and its 123 parking spaces are “more than sufficient” for the new center.
Architect John Kelly said the size of the existing building will not change and the only addition will be an elevator tower to make it accessible for the disabled. A decorative wrought-iron fence will line the perimeter.
Only three citizens addressed the project with concerns.
Celeste Smith, a Niles resident who lives 2 miles southeast of the proposed community center, told the ZBA she believes the center will cause additional traffic congestion on Ballard Road. She suggested that activities IFANCA would like to conduct there can be held elsewhere in Maine Township.
Park Ridge resident Mevlo Hoxha questioned Chaudry about the type of gatherings that would take place and expressed concerns about the hours of operation and crowds.
“I live across the street and I don’t want the congestion,” she said.
Hoxha also disagreed with Pikarski’s assertion that the activity surrounding the building would not change drastically from its previous use. Hoxha said the building was “non-eventful” as a synagogue and private school.
“We didn’t see people coming in; there weren’t huge gatherings,” she said. “It really was different from what they are talking about here. You are trying to make the comparison that nothing has changed, but that’s not a correct statement.”
The intended hours of operation were also an issue for residents and members of the ZBA. Chaudry said the center would never be open past midnight, but residents and Zoning Board members wanted to know specifically how many times per year events would last until midnight and what the average daily hours of operation would be.
Chaudry finally stated that he anticipated the center would operate until midnight no more than three times per year and most of the time would not be used past 9 p.m.
“That’s what we’re committing to,” he said.
Chaudry also said he anticipates no more than 100 to 150 people on site during the Sabeel Center’s busiest days.
“You will see better conditions than what you see right now,” he said, referring to the current state of the property. “We will make sure our neighbors are satisfied.”
Maine Township Supervisor Carol Teschky said the township had not received any residents’ objections to the project.
The Maine Township Planning Commission, comprising appointed citizens, is expected to meet within the next month to consider the requested special-use permit and a possible recommendation to the Maine Township Town Board. A date for the meeting had not been scheduled as of early this week.