By Bill Robinson
Taking the advise of the city attorney Thursday night, the Richmond Planning Commission would not reconsider its approval of a site plan for a nearly completed Muslim house of worship.
After going through its scheduled agenda, the commission heard from Debbie Secchio, who was one of 42 people who submitted a petition Sept. 27 challenging the commission’s approval of a masjid on Center Drive east of Berea Road, which is zoned B-3 (Highway Business). Muslim houses of worship are more commonly known as mosques.
B-3 zoning is primarily intended for businesses that serve the traveling public at intersections and interstate highway interchanges, Secchio said, reading the ordinance to the commissioners.
A business that puts up a sign stating it is open by appointment only and posts no phone number would not appear to meet the ordinance’s definition of a highway business, she said.
At that point, Fowles interrupted Secchio, telling the commission she was out of order “for several reasons.”
The site plan for the mosque had “long since been approved,” he said, “and it was approved quite properly.”
As he understood it, Fowles said, Secchio and the other petitioners “want the commission to find that a mosque is not a church under our zoning ordinance and, therefore, not a permission use in a B-3 zone.”
The ordinance “quite clearly” makes churches permissible uses in all three of the city’s business zones, the city attorney said.
“I’m here to tell you there is absolutely no question that a mosque, in fact, is a church within the meaning of our zoning code,” he continued. “I emphasize that the city of Richmond and, I’m confident, this board as well, has no interest in determining what sort of religious denominations can and cannot have places of worship in the city of Richmond.”
Freedom of religion, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is “one of the principals this great country was founded on,” Fowles said. “And I don’t think this commission wants to head down the road of saying ‘We’re going to allow you to worship here, but we’re not going to allow you to worship here.”
Under the definition that Secchio was advancing, a Jewish synagogue would not be allowed in a B-3 zone, the city attorney said. Also, a building for the Church of Latter-Day Saints perhaps would not be permitted under that definition, “because it is not the kind of church Ms. Secchio has in mind,” he continued. “And we are just not going there.”
For those reasons, Secchio’s petition was out of order and “should not be given any further countinence” by the commission, Fowles said.
Secchio said she was “merely addressing the assessibility of that building to highway travelers” under the ordinance’s “purpose and intent” for B-3 zoning.
“Churches are quite clearly permitted uses in a B-3 zoning district, period,” Fowles responded.
Secchio admitted the commission’s approval of the masjid under the definition of a church was questioned in the petition. But, she was questioning whether a facility that, according to its website, is open only for occasional uses meets the definition of “being assessible to highway travelers.”
Fowles again said, “A church is quite clearly permitted in a B-3 zone. A mosque is a church. That’s the end of the issue.”
Secchio then asked where she could find in city ordinances “we have defined the church versus the building going up on Center Drive.”
Fowles said he could refer her “to a better source than the city ordinance.” The Bible defines a church as its people and not a building, he said.
“This is not about religion, right now, actually,” Secchio replies.
“It is about religion,” Fowles said. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
Secchio said she had come to the meeting to get a public answer for the 42 people who had signed the petition.
“And, I’ve just given it to you,” Fowles replied.
Secchio said she wanted to hear from David Rush, the commission chair, “instead of someone I ‘m really not addressing right now.”
Rush said he did not think the commission could not rescind a site plan approval.
Commissioner Eugene Estill said the panel had considered the term church as synonymous with “worship center” when it approved the masjid site plan.
“The use of the term church in our ordinance is a narrow term that embraces all forms of religion,” Fowles then said.
Secchio said she was “pleased to hear your feedback any time, Mr. Fowles, but not your arrogance and attitude toward me. I don’t know if I’ve angered you in some way.”
Fowles later said he had been “exercised” in his response. But, the notion that people of the Muslim faith should not be permitted to build a house of worship where Christian churches were allowed was “objectionable.”
Secchio noted that the ordinance was specific in its listing of permitted uses but the city may revise the ordinance to broaden the definition.
Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@richmondregister,com or at 624-6690.