BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Plans to bring an Islamic cultural center and school to Bakersfield are being challenged by nearby residents who cite health and safety concerns.
The Buckaroo Residents Group is made up of families living on Buckaroo Court just north of the proposed 9.6-acre site on Stockdale Highway at Driver Road in western Bakersfield.
After the Kern County Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for the project on Nov. 14, the residents filed an appeal of that decision with the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
The project will be on the Board of Supervisors' Tuesday agenda. But the Buckaroo group has asked that the hearing be postponed, and the Kern County Planning Department is recommending supervisors approve that request.
An expert that the group hopes will help its cause can't make that meeting, county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said.
Mike Hart, who lives in the neighborhood, said he's concerned about how traffic would flow into the area if the school and mosque are built.
Driver Road is narrow and other area roads are either narrow or dirt.
The only real access for hundreds of cars would be from Driver Road, off of Stockdale, Hart said.
It's already hard to get onto eastbound Stockdale from Driver, he said.
While the developers of the mosque and school would have to make Driver wider, it wouldn't help area residents leave their homes and get onto Stockdale.
"Getting people in there isn't going to be a problem," he said. "Getting people out of there is going to be a nightmare."
According to Planning Department documents, the three-phase project would start with a small sanctuary and school building, later include a main worship center and finally be completed with the school facilities.
The school would serve kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The church would include a dome and tall tower that exceed the heights allowed for buildings in the area.
But the report notes that exceptions are routinely made for churches of other faiths and that federal law prohibits the county from treating one faith differently than others when making land-use decisions.
When planners asked Buckaroo Residents who filed the appeal what safety and health concerns they had with the project, they were unwilling to say, the staff report states.
Planning officials are recommending supervisors approve the project.
Emad Meerza of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield, which would oversee the school, said that the $5 million project would be developed over a series of years and the school would be completed in the final phase.
The school would comply with state educational requirements as well as teach language skills and subject matter for those of Muslim faith.
He said he is willing to talk with any of the residents about their concerns.
"I don't have any problem with any legitimate concern any Kern County resident might have about having something new come up around their home," Meerza said. "I can understand people being concerned about change."
But if the real, root issue people are concerned about is the faith of the people who would use the school and the church, Meerza hopes people would be willing to have a dialogue about what his community believes.
He hopes they will choose to learn, not judge.
"I just wish they would give me the ability, the opportunity, to alleviate their concerns," Meerza said.