More than 325 miles separate the heavily wooded lot at Impala Drive and Impala Place in suburban Henrico County from New York City and the Manhattan site where controversy swirls around plans to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.
But for Munaf Surani, one of a group of local Muslims who purchased the shaded Henrico property two years ago, the locations might as well be right next door.
Surani is a manager of 1241 Associates, an LLC created to build Henrico County's first true Islamic place of worship, one that doesn't meet in a West End motel conference room or in semi-secret in a tucked-away suburb.
When his group approached Henrico leaders in November 2008, Surani hoped the county would approve building on the land in this otherwise unlovely industrial area.
But after two years of legal wrangling, culminating most recently in scrutiny by U.S. Department of Justice officials, Surani points to the county's vote denying the mosque as sad confirmation that Americans still can't separate everyday Islam from radicalized religious terrorism.
"I feel like it was bias," he says of the county's vote to deny use of the property, suggesting only the absence of Fox News commentators separates the "Islami-phobia" here from New York City's controversy. "If it was a Baptist church, or Catholic, this would not have happened."
Supervisor Dick Glover, in whose Brookland district the mosque would be located, declined comment, citing 1241's lawsuit. But at the Nov. 12, 2008, meeting where the board voted 3-2 to deny the mosque, he said the county's 2010 land-use plan made the no vote inevitable.
"I am very much aware of the need for people to have a place to worship," Glover said. "There is other land in Henrico County that is available, and that quite possibly can be made into a reasonable use of a place of worship, regardless of faith."
But another supporter of the mosque, Sa'ad El Amin, the controversial former Richmond councilman, says he couldn't separate Henrico's decision from the New York tempest. And he alleged that Glover's part in preventing the mosque was anything but good government.
"We had people on the [county] planning staff who told us, plain and simple, ‘Mr. Glover has told us this thing is not going to happen in his district,' " says El Amin, who sat quietly at the back of the boardroom during the meeting. "I've seen a lot of discrimination in my day, both as a lawyer and an activist, but this was one of the most blatant decisions with absolutely no support."
Pamela Rose also was there; she worried about development in her backyard. Rose lives with her husband and son on Lafayette Avenue in a modest house with a backyard shaded by the 1241 Associates property's dense woods.
"What I said at the hearing was that we had no objection to any temple or synagogue or a mosque or whatever being there," she says, gesturing across her living room through a tiny kitchen window overlooking the vacant wooded lot. "Our concern was the traffic, the aesthetics and our backyard."
Rose says she attended numerous meetings about the planned Muslim community center and hosted one in her kitchen shortly after the board's vote.
"They promised they would meet us halfway," she says of the mosque leaders. It was a mutual respect — unlike this Ground Zero thing.
"Here, there's no emotional reason why they can't do what they want with their property," Rose says. "But the price is what do I and the community have to pay to have it here in this little dead-end neighborhood?"
Most objections mirrored Rose's concerns: increased traffic, disturbance of wetlands, encroachment on the neighborhood by lighting, loss of trees and routine prayer services that draw large crowds. But Lakeside remains a mostly white community, where Rebel flags and "Osama Bin Laden Hunt Club" bumper stickers can be found.
"We need to overcome potential irrational fears that exist in the minds of people," the Rev. Charles Swadley, pastor of Lakeside United Methodist Church, told county leaders, urging approval of the mosque. "I have heard a few that have expressed some irrational comments, and I was distressed — especially when it was in my own church."
No bigoted comments were aired by dissenters on the night of the vote, but county officials took pains to recognize the power of what remained unspoken.
Speaking over the disappointed murmurs of the crowd after the vote, then-Chairman David Kaechele's attempts to placate fell flat: "Let me assure you that the decision was based on technical issues and that Mr. Glover and all of us agree that we would like you to find a home in Henrico County.
"Discrimination is far from our thoughts," he said, "and we wish you the best."
Residents near Impala don't deny that some of their neighbors are interested in more than just preventing traffic at the already congested Impala Drive intersection with Hilliard Road. Although they stop short of identifying neighbors who veer toward bigotry, they suggest that one wouldn't need to walk far to find them.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 Muslims live in the Richmond area, Muslim leaders told the Henrico board. Some of them — like Mohammed Hilal — live a stone's throw from Impala Avenue.
Hilal came here from Morocco 10 years ago. He, his wife, three children and his cousin are among about two-dozen Muslims who live in the apartments at the other end of Lafayette Avenue. He says he's heard neighbors discuss objections to the Henrico mosque.
"America is very good," he says, bathed in the glow of his big-screen television topped by a tiny U.S. flag. "It's what everybody is looking for."
Tonya Dandridge, a Department of Justice spokeswoman with the U.S Attorney's Office in Richmond, cited policy in declining to comment "on the existence or nonexistence of investigations."
But there is no doubt that federal authorities recognize the Henrico vote against the mosque wasn't a decision based solely on law and logic, says state Sen. Henry Marsh, a longtime Richmond civil rights attorney representing 1241 Associates in a lawsuit.
"The new development is that, with the religious freedom statute, that the federal government has jurisdiction," says Marsh. "The Justice Department is about to decide in the case, which means it's about to escalate the matter to another level."
Surani also says federal authorities are examining the case, saying they have interviewed people associated with his investor group. Henrico Supervisors Chairwoman Patricia O'Bannon confirms that, too.
"I'm aware of it," says O'Bannon, who voted with Supervisor Frank Thornton for the mosque, acknowledging that county officials have been interviewed. "I'm not involved in it, but yes, I'm aware of it."
O'Bannon says Impala Drive is "a good location" for the proposed mosque. She says she wants a solution that is fair and doesn't involve federal intervention.
"We talked, and we are going to try to work a reasonable compromise," she says, distancing Henrico from New York's controversy. "I don't think any other mosque case should have that sort of bearing. When you get near Ground Zero … places like that are very emotional. When you don't allow people to show their emotions … they can be angry, and anger can be turned into something else."