Worshipers pray at the Islamic Center of Long Island in...

Worshipers pray at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. (Feb. 4, 2011) Credit: John Dunn

Eighteen months ago, people who lived near a large mosque in Westbury were predicting the ruin of their neighborhood if an expansion plan was approved. They angrily packed public hearings, circulated petitions and declared "enough!"

But now, in what local officials say could be a model for diverse communities coming together and resolving conflicts, a modified expansion has won village approval - and all sides seem content.

The Islamic Center of Long Island - the largest mosque in Nassau County - will move ahead with an estimated $3.5 million expansion, building a new center that will consolidate classrooms and offices that had been operating out of several houses on the 1.7-acre property.

"I'm very proud of the community," Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said Tuesday. "The community certainly could have done what other communities have done and said no under any circumstance. The people who live in that neighborhood were reasonable."

Amid the backdrop of the recent controversy involving plans to build a mosque blocks from Ground Zero, Habeeb Ammed, chairman of the mosque, said the agreement shows Muslims can be welcomed in a community that initially raised concerns.

"I feel very happy. I really give a lot of credit to the mayor and the officials of Westbury. In this atmosphere of Islamophobia and all the problems, they were very, very kind and very sensitive to the Muslim needs."

Groundbreaking for the project, which will be paid for by member donations, is expected in late spring or early summer, Ahmed said.

For her part, Betty Hylton, a community leader who in late 2009 was circulating petitions opposing a project she called "appalling," said Tuesday she accepted the modified expansion. "We are pleased with the compromise," she said.

Over the past few months, Westbury's zoning board and board of trustees have approved the project. The only remaining approval must come from the Planning Board, but Cavallaro said he expects that to go smoothly.

He said he decided to call meetings between the neighbors and mosque leaders after several heated public hearings to try to resolve the conflict.

Residents had said they were angered by scores of cars parking on surrounding streets during prayer times at the mosque, but also opposed a plan to knock down five houses on the mosque's property partly to make additional parking space.

Opponents also thought the proposed three-story building was too big, and they said they objected to plans to place a 60-foot minaret atop it because it did not fit in a residential community.

In the end, mosque leaders agreed to demolish not five but two homes, to reduce the building to two stories, and to drop the minaret. Meanwhile, the number of on-site parking spaces will increase from the current 31 to 79.

"We kind of forged a compromise that met everybody's needs," Cavallaro said. "It was a good process."

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