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Temecula approves mosque after contentious 8-hour hearing

January 26, 2011|By Phil Willon | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Temecula City Council early Wednesday morning unanimously approved a proposed mosque after a marathon eight-hour hearing that seesawed from vitriolic rants from residents castigating Muslims as terrorists to interfaith leaders praising the peaceful virtues of Islam.

In the end, the council's decision was made solely based on mundane issues such as traffic, parking and environmental impacts, with the council agreeing that the project exceeded all legal requirements for approval.

The vote came at 3:34 a.m. after the council sat patiently into the wee morning hours listening to testimony from residents, largely a replay of the months of debate over the mosque. More than 110 people signed up to testify, though some drifted away after sitting through six hours of speakers.

"This was a democratic republic at its best," said Councilwoman Maryann Edwards. Plans by the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley to build a 24,943-square-foot mosque on a vacant 4-acre plot in northeastern Temecula, next to a Baptist church, have been attacked by opponents who have said the mosque will attract Islamic extremists and overwhelm the neighborhood with traffic congestion and noise.

The city's Planning Commission unanimously approved the project in early December, and opponents appealed that ruling to the City Council, which held a packed public hearing on the project starting about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night.

"This is a great day for all of Temecula, really," said Imam Mohamoud Harmoush of the Islamic Center. "Now I think we must again devote ourselves to reaching out to the community."

Dozens of residents, and speakers from as far away as Los Angeles and Hesperia, voiced their opposition to the center. Most of the criticism focused on the potential traffic congestion that the mosque may create on neighborhood streets, although city planners said an independent traffic study showed the center would have minimal effects.

Other speakers hurled visceral attacks against Islam, warning that the mosque would serve as a strategic foothold for extremists bent on undercutting America's values and laws.

"If you want to come here and not abide by our laws, you can just turn around and find another place to live," said Amy Pina, 42, of Temecula. Just as many residents, including dozens of Muslims living in the Temecula Valley, condemned those attacks as bigoted vitriol born of an ignorance of Islamic beliefs.

"We are not terrorists. We are victims of terrorists ? we are victims of fear," Suhail Fares told the council.

Early in the hearing, City Atty. Peter Thorson told council members that they could only consider land-use issues when reviewing the project and that to base any decision on religious, political or social factors would violate freedom of religion under the 1st Amendment.

The mosque and center reflect a Mediterranean design seen in many Temecula neighborhoods, though the building will have traditional domes topped with crescent moons. The facility will be built in two stages, with the first limited to a 4,100-square-foot mosque to serve about 150 Muslim families living in Temecula, Murrieta and surrounding communities.

The Islamic Center, which has existed for years in a warehouse in one of Temecula's industrial areas, bought the property for the proposed mosque 10 years ago and has been raising money to build the facility ever since. The Planning Commission's approval of the mosque was appealed to the City Council by Temecula resident George Rombach, president of a group called Concerned American Citizens.

Rombach during the hearing accused city officials of giving the Islamic Center preferential treatment and said the proposed mosque violated restrictions on parking, environmental impacts and generating traffic. City planning officials dismissed those allegations, saying the city acted properly and the proposed mosque met all legal requirements.

Rombach said he hadn't decided whether to file a legal challenge to the city's decision.

"I'm still weighing my options," he said.

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