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Pa. judge's action stops development

A Pennsylvania judge has sided with a local township in its dispute with a religious group over a retirement community the group wants to build; setting aside the decision made by the community's zoning board to allow it.

In the decision, the judge in Chester County Court ruled that the Zoning Hearing Board in East Fallowfield Township, Pennsylvania, had ignored key components of the area's zoning rules in ruling the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship could build 43 carriage-style houses on its 108 acres of property.

East Fallowfield Township is about an hour west of Philadelphia.

The congregation bought the rural land in the 1980s. On it now is a small shrine that houses the remains of its late founder, who came to West Philadelphia from Sri Lanka in 1971 and began sharing his form of Islam. He died in 1986, leaving behind hundreds of followers.

The 350-member congregation wanted to build the 43 homes to serve its aging population. The land's zoning currently includes retirement homes, and the Zoning Hearing Board granted a variance to green-light the project.

The complex was on its way to development until 2009, when the township's Board of Supervisors put a halt to it, challenging the variance. The supervisors and the congregation were unable to reach a compromise on the plan, leaving the township to challenge the project in court.

Members of the Board of Supervisors contend the high-density, cluster-style housing would ruin the rural charm of the rapidly growing region. In the past 10 years, the population of East Fallowfield has grown to 7,400, an increase of 44 percent.

Rolling hills and farmland dominate the landscape of the small community. Already, one supervisor said, too many high-density housing projects have started to assault the character of the area. He added that it is the supervisors' duty to clamp down on such developments.

The fellowship is expected to appeal the ruling to the Commonwealth Court. That court could take as long as a year to make a decision.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, "Major setback for Muslim retirement community plan in Chesco," Anthony Campisi, Feb. 27, 2012

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