Alpharetta, Islamic center return to mediation

A panel of federal appeals court judges Wednesday ordered the city of Alpharetta and the Islamic Center of North Fulton to try and resolve a zoning dispute over a proposed fivefold expansion of facilities on the center’s property.

The directive came after the three-judge panel heard arguments as to whether the city infringed on the mosque’s ability to exercise religion when the council denied the expansion.

“This case cries out for some kind of settlement,” Chief Judge Joel Dubina told lawyers for the city and the Islamic center. Noting both sides had previously failed to mediate a settlement, Dubina said they needed try again.

If no settlement is reached in 120 days, Dubina said, the court will issue its ruling. At that point, he said, “Someone will win. Someone will lose.”

The dispute involves the Islamic center’s request to expand its facilities on Rucker Road. The center said its two 2,500-square-foot facilities — its mosque and the Imam’s residence — on 4.2 acres of adjacent properties were not big enough to accommodate its 600 members.

The center asked the city council for permission to build a 12,032-square-foot mosque and a 1,910-square-foot community hall on the properties. But in May 2010, the council unanimously voted to deny the application as members reminded the center it had said in a 2004 zoning request it would not seek any more expansions.

The Islamic center sued the city, alleging discrimination and violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which forbids governments from imposing substantial burdens on a congregation’s exercise of religion. In January 2012, Senior U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester dismissed the suit, finding the city did not violate the law.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the Islamic center was joined by a U.S. Justice Department attorney in asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Forrester’s decision.

The center’s lawyer, Douglas Dillard, told the three appeals court judges that the congregation’s ability to practice religion has been restricted by the city council’s vote to deny the center’s expansion. “The decision the city made was clearly arbitrary and capricious,” he said.

The Justice Department’s Nathaniel Pollock told the judges that the city had illegally discriminated against the Islamic center when it denied the application. The mosque’s proposed expansion falls within the mid-range of comparative worship facilities in the city, he said.

Scott Busby, a lawyer for Alpharetta, said the city did not discriminate against the Islamic center. He called the dispute “a run-of-the-mill zoning case” in which Alpharetta “has tried to be fair and impartial.”

The majority of the Islamic center’s issues can be fixed by renovating the existing facilities’ roof, heating and air conditioning system, floors and bathrooms, Busby said. “There’s no substantial burden” on the congregation’s ability to practice religion, only “inconveniences.”

The 2000 religious land use act does not allow for unfettered growth, Busby said. “If you buy a four-acre site, you’re not going to build an airport on it. … There’s a question of degree.”

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