Holly V. Hays
The proposed development of a residential neighborhood, community center, Islamic seminary and religious center in Hendricks County has garnered both staunch opposition and strong support from residents.
An application to rezone a patch of agricultural land, which was formerly a golf course located at 4705 N. County Road 1000 E in Brownsburg, will go before the Hendricks County planning commission Tuesday evening. The project, Clermont Village, would include over 200 houses and townhomes, a private school, community center and dormitory for students of the Al Hussnain Seminary.
Emails sent directly to the planning commission office were overwhelmingly positive, said Tim Dombrosky, director of the county’s planning and building department, with hundreds speaking in support and only a few dozen voicing opposition to the project, mostly on the grounds of environmental impact and traffic density.
However, a Change.org petition that was supposedly created to voice opposition on the grounds that the development could lead to increased flooding in the area was met with ostensibly anti-Islamic comments.
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Shamaas Nyazee, president of the Al Hussnain Seminary, said in a written statement that the comments on the petition are hurtful, but “don’t reflect the true nature of the community.”
“We’ve worked very hard to ensure that Clermont Village is a safe, walkable place that meets the highest standard of any application and we look forward to being a part of this neighborhood,” Nyazee said. “We’re entitled to a process that’s fair and impartial. That’s all we ask for.”
The concept site plan for Clermont Village, which includes a community center, K-12 private school and classrooms for an Islamic seminary.
‘It’s open to anyone’
The application to rezone from agricultural to planned unit development of the over 80-acre expanse between I-74 and Edgewood Road was submitted in early December 2020. The seminary does not currently own the property, said Elizabeth Link, who represents the project. They are under contract and will close when the appropriate approvals are in place and construction is green-lit.
The project includes a private K-12 school, dormitory and community center that would house prayer rooms, classrooms, a gymnasium and swimming pool. The surrounding neighborhood would include 234 units — 149 single-family homes and 85 townhomes and flats — projected to range in price from $180,000 to $500,000.
The classrooms within the community center would be used for seminary students who would live in the onsite dormitory, Link said. Like students at the Christian Theological Seminary, these students study religious texts, language (in this case, Arabic) and complete courses for marriage and drug addiction counseling. The seminary has around 100 full-time students, according to its website.
The seminary has been operating out of its current facility in Indianapolis since 2013, she said, and has simply outgrown its facility. By moving it to this community center, it provides living quarters, classrooms and space for recreational activities all in one location.
“It’s an ideal situation for them,” she said.
As for the K-12 school, Link said it will include co-ed classes for kindergarten through fifth grade and separate instruction for boys and girls from grades 6-12. As a private school, it will operate like other religious educational institutions.
As for the surrounding neighborhood, concerns that it would be a private community are unfounded, she said.
“It’s open to anyone,” Link said, “no matter race, creed, color, sex, disability.”
Concerns about traffic or environmental impact were considered and have been addressed by separate studies, Link said. A traffic study submitted to the commission in December found roadways on the site would operate with “overall acceptable levels of service” under the proposed conditions of the development and without future improvements beyond those required during construction.
“From a technical standpoint, we believe that we’re 100% in compliance with the comp plan for the county,” she said, “and we’re confident that we can meet the technical requirements in order to develop a really good project.”
‘Hate has no home in Brownsburg’
Dombrosky told IndyStar his office had received over 650 messages of support and a couple dozen messages opposing the proposed plans for the site. The supporting documents for the proposal, including comments emailed to the office, are publicly available via Google Drive. Of the messages shared publicly, none are as vitriolic as some under the online petition.
Carolyn Noble, of Brownsburg, wrote, in part: “We have Rights in America, and Freedom of Religion is one of them that should be respected and celebrated. I also believe that a development like this would be a positive thing for Brownsburg as a whole, as it would increase money being spent in our town.”
Andrea Skirvin: “Hate has no home in Brownsburg. Another community has many rights, freedoms and choices as those who live here do. The hate and racism must stop with us. Please be apart of the solution and not the problem.”
And at least 237 near-identical emails were sent to Dombrosky — all from different senders, mostly from Central Indiana, he said, according to public files — with the message: “I love my community and I’ve been frightened and dismayed by the bigotry that has clearly been driving so much opposition to this project. I believe that Hendricks County should be a place where people of all religions, races, and backgrounds should be able to live, work, study and worship, and that the proposed plan will create a wonderful walkable community. The Clermont Village project helps make that a reality and helps build our tax base.”
The comments in opposition run the gamut from flooding to traffic density, citing issues with drainage infrastructure and the lack of space to expand roadways to manage the increase in travel.
However, that is not the case elsewhere. The Change.org petition voicing concerns regarding the project’s potential environmental impacts and opposition to “a private community (building) their own school” has collected signatures and comments that are ostensibly Islamophobic.
The petition, created two weeks ago by an account with no profile picture and the username “Select one,” had more than 600 signatures as of noon Tuesday. Commenters were primarily from Central Indiana, according to their accounts, but others are as far away as Vacaville, California, or Cheney, Washington.
An user under the name Bill Stokes, of Indianapolis, said: “No more schools are necessary especially Islamic ones that want sharia law instead of our U.S. Constitution to govern our land.”
Another user, Christopher Gonzales, of Indianapolis wrote: “To me this sounds like a community that has (an) agenda. Why have a school built when we have so many already? Why dorm rooms? Would anyone be able to attend this school or is it only for those who practice the Quran?”
And user Patty Costello, of Brownsburg, wrote: “We don’t need to be segregating people. If you can’t live with the people already here you don’t need to be here. We don’t need that many houses and another freaking school.”
History repeats itself
The response is not at all dissimilar to opposition of construction of a mosque in Hamilton County three years ago.
In 2018, members of the Al Salam congregation received pushback for their plans to build an Islamic life center near 141st Street and Shelborne Road in Carmel. Residents of nearby affluent neighborhoods complained of decreased property values and calls to prayer disturbing the peace (the calls were not explicitly mentioned in the original plans) and some objected to the religion itself.
Those plans were approved by the county’s zoning board but was blocked by a county judge whose ruling was eventually overturned by the Indiana Court of Appeals in spring 2019. Construction was set to begin on the mosque in 2020.
Scott Simpson, public advocacy director for Muslim Advocates, said it’s not uncommon for residents to voice their concerns in ways that, superficially, seem related to the technical aspects of the construction. However, the motivation behind that opposition is generally much deeper.
Link said she had personally received over 500 messages voicing support of the project and was aware that county officials had received overwhelmingly positive messages about the construction.
Both Simpson and Link cautioned that the negative opinions may not represent the feelings of the broader Hendricks County community.
“Typically, what happens with opposition is it tends to be a small, organized group of individuals that really tries to push these more bigoted narratives,” he said. “It’s rarely, if ever, the true majority of these communities, in our experience.”
If the Brownsburg project is approved for rezoning on Tuesday evening, it will next go to the county commissioners for approval and then will enter planning and platting stages of development.
You can reach IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.