Islamic Society parking request sparks city discussion

MARSHALL — The Islamic Society of Marshall had found a new home in the former Lee’s Tae Kwon Do gym. But a lack of off-street parking made some members of the Marshall City Council question whether the new site was a good fit for a place of worship.

Those questions came up at the city council’s regular meeting Tuesday night, as council members weighed in on a variance request for fewer parking spaces at the new Islamic Society building.

In the end, the council did grant the request, with the condition that the city work on appropriate markings and signs for on-street parking further down the street, away from residential properties.

Marshall Public Works Director Glenn Olson said the Islamic Society was requesting a variance to be allowed 16 parking spaces instead of the 32 required by the city zoning ordinances. The parking stalls at the former Lee’s building, located on South 10th Street, met zoning requirements when the building was being used as a martial arts studio. The Islamic Society would be considered an assembly space without seating — a different zoning category, with more parking spaces required. However, there’s not enough room on the property to build 32 parking spaces.

Olson said city staff recommended approving the parking variance because of the practical difficulties in building the required parking spaces. The Marshall Planning Commission, on the other hand, recommended denying the request because of the safety concerns that having on-street parking would raise.

Marshall City Attorney Dennis Simpson offered additional support for granting the parking variance. If the city denied the request, he said, “I think there is a potential for a subsequent lawsuit” under federal civil rights laws. In particular, Simpson said, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act calls for religious institutions to be treated the same as non-religious institutions in land use requirements.

For variance requests, the city needed to look at practical difficulty issues, Simpson said. For the new Islamic Society property, he said, “The issues existed when they bought the property.”

Council member Glenn Bayerkohler said he wasn’t in favor of granting the parking variance.

Bayerkohler said he researched other Minnesota cities, including Faribault, Minneapolis and Waseca, and found they had even tougher rules than Marshall for the number of parking spaces required at worship centers. He also questioned whether the former Lee’s building was a good location for the Islamic Society, especially if the congregation grows.

“Maybe we’re not doing them a favor” in granting the variance, Bayerkohler said.

Simpson said the city has “quite frequently” granted parking variances, both to businesses, and to institutions like the Lyon County Government Center. Council member Steven Meister said some churches in Marshall already use on-street parking during services.

Bayerkohler replied that those churches had been where they were for a long time.

“I think they’ve been grandfathered in” to on-street parking, he said.

Speaking from the gallery, local residents said they were concerned about traffic and illegal parking at the new Islamic center. One resident said parking in private driveways and far out in the street were problems at the old location.

Bayerkohler moved to deny the parking variance, but the motion died for lack of a second.

“At this point, we should work out a compromise,” council member James Lozinski said. There might not be a need for a variance, he said.

Council member Craig Schafer said it could be possible to have on-street parking further south along 10th Street, away from four residences on the street. However, Schafer and Lozinski said, there would need to be marked parking on one side of the street, to allow room for truck traffic from neighboring businesses. There would also need to be a maintained sidewalk to get people from their cars to the Islamic Center, Schafer said.

Schafer asked Islamic Society members in the gallery if they would be willing to remove snow from the sidewalk so people would use it.

“Yes,” was the answer.

Council member David Sturrock said he thought it was still appropriate to act on a parking variance for the Islamic Society. Sturrock moved that the parking variance be granted, provided that signs and other street parking limitations be used for safety.

The council voted 5-1 to approve the parking variance. Bayerkohler cast the dissenting vote, and Lozinski abstained.