For years, neighbors of a major mosque in Westbury complained about scores of cars parking on surrounding streets during prayer times and creating havoc.
So leaders of the Islamic Center of Long Island thought residents would be happy when they announced plans to nearly triple the number of parking spaces on mosque property. The parking expansion is part of a plan to knock down four houses the mosque uses for offices and a Sunday school and erect one central building.
But some residents are fuming about the plan, and nearly 150 people packed Westbury village hall Monday night to protest.
"Granting the variance will destroy our neighborhood," resident Belinda Williams told the Zoning Board of Appeals. "We've had 20 years of this. Enough!"
Mosque leaders said they are not backing down from their proposal, though they said they will try to satisfy the residents.
"I understand their concerns," said Habeeb Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Center. But, he added, many churches and synagogues are located in residential neighborhood areas and don't provoke uproars.
The center is proposing to knock down four or five houses it owns on its 1.77-acre property on Brush Hollow Road. The houses, worth about $400,000 each, are used as offices and classrooms for religious education, Ahmed said.
The proposed building would be three stories high. Mosque leaders have ditched plans to put an 80-foot minaret on top because of neighbors' objections.
The project would increase the number of parking spaces on the property from 31 to close to 100 under some versions of the plan, though that is still short of the 230 legally required by zoning laws based on the square footage of the new building. The variance would allow mosque officials to have fewer spaces.
Ahmed said the mosque also is examining plans to have worshipers park at locations such as nearby St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church and shuttle them to the mosque in vans or car pools. St. Brigid's has agreed to the plan.
He noted that during the mosque's main worship time - Fridays at about 1 p.m. - most residents are at work. On a typical Friday, 500 people come, bringing about 200 cars.
Many residents say they believe the proposed project will destroy the character of their neighborhood. They cringe at the idea of knocking down four or five homes, replacing them with a parking lot full of exhaust-spewing cars, and plunking a three-story building down in the middle of the property.
"I am appalled they would make a move like that," said Betty Hylton, who was busy collecting signatures on a petition before Monday's meeting.
Opposition leader Judith Parrish said it is already a nightmare simply pulling out of her driveway, and that the project would attract even more worshipers.
"For 20 years we have been tolerating the mosque," she said. "We are not against their [religious] services, but . . . this neighborhood is too small a place for them to expand."