The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a public investigation into whether the city of Lomita discriminated against a religious institution when its council denied an application from the Muslim community to expand the Islamic Center of South Bay.
Lomita City Atty. Christi Hogin said federal investigators interviewed 13 people this week involved with the city's decision after launching an initial inquiry in June. She said that there is not "any evidence at all" of anti-Muslim sentiments in Lomita.
"It surprises me that the federal government would spend so many resources second-guessing this pretty basic land-use decision," she said.
But supporters of the mosque don't see it that way.
In a unanimous vote in March 2010, the Lomita City Council rejected a plan for a new consolidated worship center, citing neighbors' concerns and increased traffic. The 4-0 vote occurred despite a study from city staff that concluded traffic would remain the same.
Iraj Ershaghi, a founding member of the Islamic Center and manager of the redesign project, said city council members faced "a lot of pressure" from residents to reject the proposal.
"There was a feeling that they just don't want us there," Ershaghi said of the March meeting.
Supporters of the mosque allege that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law says that a land-use decision can be overturned if it discriminates against a religious institution or places a "substantial burden" on exercising faith.
"What the mosque is really looking for is injunctive relief," said Ameena Mirza Qazi, who directs the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The mosque really just wants approval of its project."
But Hogin said the land-use controversy boils down to a space issue. She noted that the planning commission only narrowly approved the proposal, 4-3, and the council simply recognized that project managers were "trying to fit a building that was too big for that space."
The Lomita Muslim community purchased the original property for a worship center on Walnut Street in 1985, and over the years it has bought adjacent properties to accommodate multiple structures for prayer and community services. The proposed project would have consolidated the nine buildings on the land into one two-story structure.
Ershaghi, a USC petroleum engineering professor, said worshipers currently have to walk up to 500 yards to get to different buildings.
"It just doesn't make sense," Ershaghi said. "The whole idea was to make this part of Lomita clean. You can see that this case really has nothing to do with the building."