Neighbors oppose expansion of Islamic worship center in Alpharetta

Muslims have worshipped more than a decade in a nondescript ranch-style house on Rucker Road in Alpharetta.

The faithful enter the Islamic Center of North Fulton five times a day, kneel along lines drawn on the blue carpet and face Mecca. But prayer services are the only activity this building has room to accommodate, said Moiz Mumtaz, chairman of the center’s board of trustees.

That’s why leaders want to tear down the 2,500-square-foot worship center and replace it with a two-story building with a gymnasium, library, administrative offices and prayer space. Mumtaz said a modern building would better serve the Americanized offspring of members.

“To me it’s really important these kids feel like they’re part of this place,” Mumtaz said.

But many neighbors in the subdivisions surrounding the worship center don’t like the idea. They say a new, bigger building doesn't fit in and would increase traffic and noise. Jerry Myers, vice president of the Northfield subdivision homeowners association, said the building is simply too big for the center’s 4.2 acres of property.

“It’s going to look like an elephant on a postage stamp,” Myers said.

Those arguments will be aired May 6 when the Alpharetta Planning Commission discusses the Islamic center’s building plans.

The center has already scaled down its plans because of neighbors’ concerns, going from 19,600 to 13,950 square feet of new construction.

Mumtaz, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the worship center doesn’t have members in the conventional sense, but estimated about 600 people are affiliated with the center. He said the center doesn't want to attract new people, just better serve people now using the building.

Neighbors question that thinking.

“Every church I’ve ever belonged to that build a bigger building has attracted more people,” said Alyn Wambeke of the Northfield subdivision.

Plans call for construction of a 1,910-square-foot temporary worship building. The existing worship center would be torn down and a new worship center built on that spot, with a gym eventually added. The temporary worship center would become an activity building. The project would take several years.

Mumtaz, who said he's talked to numerous interfaith groups since 9/11, said he’s felt no anti-Islamic prejudice from neighbors.

“I think most of the people are concerned about will there be more people coming here, will there be more traffic?” he said.

Traffic on two-lane Rucker Road was a major concern. A handful of people attend daily prayer services, but Friday afternoon prayers draw several hundred people. The center runs Friday prayer services in two shifts and a police officer directs traffic, Mumtaz said.

Lynda Von Kanel, who lives directly behind the center, favors expansion.

"I believe in being a good neighbor," she said.

Other Atlanta-area religious groups that wanted to expand have gone to court in recent months.

A Muslim congregation in Lilburn sued in December after the city turned down its plans to build a 20,000-square-foot mosque, cemetery and gymnasium on 8 acres. In Sandy Springs, Scientologists sued in January when the city refused to let the church expand a former office building into its Georgia headquarters. Both case are pending.

If the Alpharetta planning commission makes a recommendation on May 6, the expansion project would go to the city council on May 24.