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Lomita under investigation over rejection of Islamic Center expansion

November 18, 2011 |  4:35 pm

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating 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 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 that traffic would remain the same.

Iraj Ershaghi, a founding member of the Islamic Center and manager of the redesign project, said  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 reiterated that the land-use controversy boils down to a space issue. She noted that the planning committee only narrowly approved the proposal, 4 to 3, and said 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 the community has bought adjacent properties to form multiple structures for prayer and community services. The project would have consolidated the nine buildings into one two-story structure on the zigzagging property.

Ershaghi, a USC petroleum engineering professor, said worshipers currently have to walk up to 500 yards to get to different units and restrooms.

“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.” 

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-- Matt Stevens   

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