Horn Lake Board of Aldermen met in executive session Tuesday night to discuss strategy regarding a lawsuit over their denial of a site plan for a proposed mosque, but took no action or offered any hint of what the city’s next move will be.
The board was served with a lawsuit last Wednesday by developer Ray Elk after the city voted at its April 20 meeting not to overturn the Planning Commission's recommendation to deny a proposal to build a mosque on 80 acres of land on Church Road.
In a 5-1 vote, officials cited concerns over a lack of water pressure to provide adequate fire protection, traffic safety, and noise issues over potential loud speakers at the mosque.
Elk maintains anti-Muslim bias is the real reason behind the decision to deny him permission to build a mosque and filed a lawsuit.
He was hoping the city would reconsider Tuesday night and allow the development to move forward.
"I really hate this," Elk said. "But if we have to go to court, we have to."
Prior to the executive session, Ward 4 Alderman Charlie Roberts, who was recently defeated in the Republican primary for a fourth term on the board, announced that after visiting a mosque in Memphis that he had a change of heart and was in favor of allowing the mosque to be built.
"I want to let everybody know for the record that unless you visit a mosque and see what they do, it's hard to make a rational decision," Roberts said.
Roberts said the country was founded on freedom of religion and that he believes Muslims have a right to build a house of worship just like any other religion.
"If we can have Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches on every corner and have religious freedom, we should also be able to allow our Islamic Muslim friends to have the same worship," Roberts said. "I support freedom of religion and will stand behind the freedom of religion for everybody."
The board convened in executive session for about an hour, but took no action or entertained any motions from any of the aldermen to take action regarding the mosque.
Elk said he will gladly drop the lawsuit if the city re-votes and approves the plans for the site. The mosque was only one component of a larger project that he was proposing to develop.
Elk had originally sought approval to build 24 homes that would sit on two acre lots. He was also looking for approval to situate the mosque and a cemetery on the remaining 25 acres.
The proposed 10,000 square foot mosque would occupy about three acres of the property and accommodate 156 worshipers. The site plan included 44 parking spaces - more than were required - and met all setback, natural buffering, and architectural review standards for the Agricultural-Residential zoning. The plan also included a deceleration lane to accommodate traffic entering the mosque on the busy roadway.
The city's former planning director noted in his report that a church is an allowable use, but did not make any recommendations to the city whether to approve or deny the mosque.
The Planning Commission turned down the site plan 6-0 at its Feb. 22 meeting citing traffic and safety concerns to the surrounding neighborhood.The proposed mosque drew sharp criticism and questions from residents along Church Road who objected to the possibility of loud speakers being installed to call worshipers to prayer, increased traffic along the roadway, and the uncertainty of further development on the site.
None of the residents who spoke out against the mosque at that meeting raised religious concerns.
Elk said he did not understand why the board of aldermen turned down the site plan.
"I've lived in this area for over 20 years," Elk said. "My kids went to Horn Lake school until we moved to Southaven. This is my home for 20 years. I just don't get it."
Elk said the proposed homes would mean more tax revenue for the city.
"I'm not talking about $100,000 homes," Elk said. "These are going to be $500,000 homes. This is going to be a lot of revenue for the city."
He said the plan met all of the requirements and went above and beyond what was required. He offered to put in writing that there would be no loud speakers, and even went so far as to pledge not to build anything else on the site.
"Before I even went before the board, I met with (Mayor Allen Latimer) and had a sketch," Elk said. "It had 23 homes. It had the mosque. And it had the cemetery. I said that's what I am doing with the 80 acres. Are there any problems? He said as long as I have the plans and it meets the code, I would be good. But they didn't approve a thing. They rejected the whole plan. And they rejected it because I am a Muslim man."
Elk reiterated his belief that the denial was based on anti-Muslim bias, pointing to comments he's seen made in a Facebook group.
"There is a group and a few people that is stirring all this hate," Elk said. "If you read some of the comments, they are disgusting."
Roberts said after the meeting that he was working on a plan to resolve the matter, but could not offer more specifics at this time.
"It's a work in progress," Roberts said. "But I believe in treating everyone fairly."