May 11, 2011— -- A dispute over a mosque in Amherst, N.Y., has the community buzzing about a sign posted in a neighbor's yard that reads, "Bomb Making: Next Driveway."
Many of the mosque's other neighbors have come to its defense, saying linking the religious center to terrorism is preposterous, and though town officials say they don't like the sign, they say there is nothing they can do about it.
A spokesman for the mosque suggested that anyone who has doubts about the intentions of the faithful there should come see for themselves.
"Come and visit the mosque, the message is peace and love," said Dr. Riyaz Hassanali, a spokesman for the mosque. "That is the message we are trying to portray. That was the message before the sign was there and it will be the message for the next 200 years. The notion that the recent events in Pakistan are somehow linked is foolishness."
The dispute started when the Jaffarya Islamic Center started a new mosque construction two years ago. According to Amherst town supervisor Barry Weinstein, the homeowner next to the mosque had several disputes with the mosque leaders and the town council over the facility's lighting and fencing.
The property is zoned for a community facility, and there are several businesses on the street, but the mosque is next to a residential property.
"The goal is to settle the dispute and get the sign down because it's really inappropriate," Weinstein said. "To say there is bomb making in the next driveway, there's no evidence of that, there's only evidence of a peaceful community.
After several investigations by the town council and police department over the sign, they have determined that the sign is protected by the first amendment and cannot be forcibly removed. Weinstein has made several attempts to contact the homeowner and Police Captain Michael Camilleri says they did speak with the homeowner over the civil matter.
"Other than monitor the situation, there's nothing that we can do," Camilleri said.
A business owner diagonal from the mosque said no one else in the community has a problem with the mosque and the homeowner does not speak for the rest of the business owners and residents.
"When I saw the sign, I told the manager we need to send these people a welcome to the neighborhood letter," said Weny Merkle, owner of Room to Spare Storage. "It's not fair when you have a neighbor that is trying to disrupt things and that they be the only ones be heard, we sent them a card this morning."
Merkle said the building is directly behind his property and she can see where the facility lights would not be positioned well.
"If he has a problem with lights and lack of fences then that's what his sign should have addressed, not some crazy stereotype," Merkle said. "His sign has nothing to do with what his legitimate complaints are, and it creates something in the community we don't need."
Hassanali said it is wrong for the neighbor to jump to violent conclusions over a civil dispute, even in light of recent events with the death of Osama Bin Laden.
"Each time something happens around the world, we find ourselves under a microscope that I am supposed to have an answer for something 3,000 miles away," Hassanali said. "I am just as afraid of terrorism and Osama and his followers and I am just as afraid for my children. My loyalty and every person who belongs to this mosque is a U.S. citizen and their loyalty is to this country."
As far as contact with the neighbor, Hassanali said they have tried to meet every demand of the neighbor.
"Believe me, we have tried, we have talked to him personally and responded to his attorney letters," Hassanali said. "Town officials have come by every step of the way making sure there was not code violations whatsoever. We've tried to address and appease to his demands but whatever we have done doesn't seem to satisfy him."
Several businesses such as Merkle's wanted to ensure the mosque community that not everyone feels like the neighbor and that they are happy to have them as a part of the community.
"Community outreach has been fantastic, Hassanali said.
Hassanali said some in the community have even reached out with humor. The dentist office across the street from the residence and mosque posted a sign Tuesday that read "Smiles: Next Driveway."
The grand opening celebration of the mosque is scheduled for Saturday, when leaders and participants will come from Ontario and New York City to participate in events.
The person listed at the residence with the sign, Michael Heick, could not be reached for comment.