A very strange story from Miami. A man builds a house with some classic Mughal motifs, neighbors and the County commissioner accuse him of building a mosque or religious structure, after which he will proselytize to students at a nearby University. (h/t: Manuel)
I can see how from the architecture some may assume that the structure is going to be a mosque. This all may be a terrible misunderstanding:
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
County Commissioner Javier Souto suspects that a seven-bedroom, 11-bathroom house under construction in his West Miami-Dade district is destined to be used as a religious sanctuary — possibly a mosque.
He has complained to the county’s building and zoning departments. He flagged the inspector general, the state attorney and the governor. He also urged his colleagues to initiate an investigation and issue subpoenas.
But property owner Samir Ghazal says he’s just building a house for his mother — an 8,190-square-foot house, featuring a nearly two-story high, Moorish-style arch over the front door.
The dispute came to a head last week, when Souto, grilling county administrators about the house, said he smells corruption and wants drastic action.
“I want somebody to go to jail here,” he said.
Ghazal says racial and religious intolerance — not the house size — are driving the complaints.
“I think it’s discrimination, when two blocks away there’s a lady who built a house, same size, and she’s a white Cuban. I think it’s because my mother is a black Cuban,” said Ghazal, 36. “Because I practice Islam.”
Administrators say the three-story Westwood Lakes house, while dwarfing neighboring one-story homes, follows the county’s building and zoning codes. Ghazal insists the house will be just that — a home — and not a mosque.
The controversy has prompted commissioners, apparently surprised to find out that the county allows houses so clearly out of scale with their surroundings, to debate whether Miami-Dade should tighten its residential building regulations. Souto has floated the idea of an architectural design board, similar to those in Miami Beach and Coral Gables.
A provision in the county code says the architectural style and color of buildings should “harmonize” with their neighborhood. But County Attorney Robert Cuevas opined in February that the broad provision, which is not backed by any specific standards, cannot be used to deny a building permit if the plans meet detailed zoning regulations.
Souto disagrees with Cuevas’ interpretation.
In unincorporated Miami-Dade, if home builders are not seeking a special permit, known as a variance, then there is no requirement for approval by the local community council that deals with zoning matters, or notification to neighbors prior to construction.
The county says that was the case with Ghazal’s house at 4260 SW 111th Ave. in the Westwood Lakes neighborhood, south of Bird Road and east of Florida’s Turnpike. The huge “monstrosity,” as several commissioners have referred to it, is painted mostly the color of mustard.
Of particular concern to Souto and other commissioners are the house’s seven bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, which they worry means it could be turned into an assisted-living facility or dormitory. The house also features an elevator and a third floor, identified in the plans as an “exercise/prayer” room.
None of those amenities runs afoul of the county code, which allows elevators and does not limit the number of bedrooms or bathrooms. While houses are allowed to have only two stories, a third “upper floor” is acceptable as long as it is two-thirds the size of the lower floors and fits within the allowed 35-foot building height.
During a tense exchange with Souto at Tuesday’s commission meeting, county building chief Charlie Danger, who was not in charge when the house was approved, pointed to another three-story home in Westwood Lakes, about half a mile away, that is similarly out of scale but doesn’t have what he called “an Arabic look” — yet did not stir controversy.
“It’s the same monstrosity,” he said.
Construction on Ghazal’s house began in 2008. At one point, permits expired and the county began the lengthy process to demolish the structure. The process was stopped after the county and Ghazal went to court and agreed to extend the permits, which were later extended again. Ghazal’s current permits are good through December; both he and the county say they expect the house to be finished before then.
Commissioner Souto blamed former planning department officials for allowing the house construction to proceed, and suggested they somehow broke the law in doing so — though the department typically does not play a significant role in approving plans for new houses that meet zoning requirements.
“They made a mistake in the planning department, or they did it on purpose,” he said, hinting at a more nefarious motive.
Souto also suggested that the house will be used to recruit college students to become Muslims.
His office first called building officials about the house in 2009, according to department notes: “Received call from Comm Souto office, mosque being built and the building has not been worked for over a year. Permit history indicate expire permits.”
Later, the commissioner flagged law-enforcement agencies, who poked around and found nothing amiss, Danger said, adding that the inspector general’s office went to the building department twice to review records. Lamented Souto: “Everybody’s washing their hands.”
The commissioner has refused to meet with Ghazal, despite overtures by Ghazal and the building department.
“Why should I meet with a guy that is having problems with the county, and I know that there’s a very hot situation that might erupt?” Souto said. “Let him talk to the lawyers of the county.”
Ghazal said he would like to give Souto a tour of the house.
“I just want to show him, ‘It’s for a Cuban family just like you,’ ” Ghazal said. “It’s gonna be a house. It’s not gonna be a mosque.”
Souto says he has not referred to the house as a mosque, adding that he does not know how it will ultimately be used.
“What I think it’s going to become is a place controlled by some religious — whatever that means — to work on the boys and girls of FIU,” he said, noting the house is less than two miles from Florida International University.
“It’s crystal clear, it’s only not clear to those who don’t want to see,” Souto added. “I don’t give a hoot if it’s Catholic, Muslim, Protestant — I respect all religions — what I’m saying is that this is a violation of our laws.”
Ghazal, who has not attended the commission discussions about his property, owns a Coral Gables-based mortgage company and another firm, Ghazal Holding, an oil-sector business whose parent company is in Saudi Arabia. He identified himself as a U.S.-born Cuban-American.
Ghazal said he and his architect did not know what to name the third floor, and so they called it an exercise/prayer room in the plans, though it may actually be used for storage or recreation. He copied the house’s architectural style, he said, from the Taj Mahal in India.
“There’s nothing Arabic about it,” he said. “If I would have known that it would have bothered them so much, I wouldn’t have done it [like that].”
As for having so many bedrooms and bathrooms just for his mother, Ghazal said, why not? “Every room deserves a bathroom,” he said.
Some of his neighbors, however, are not buying it.
Several complained to commissioners about the house in February, urging them to keep a close eye on whether it is used for anything other than a single-family home. Many of the commissioners, as well as Mayor Carlos Gimenez, have said they, too, are skeptical.
Among those frustrated are David and Patricia Flowers, who live behind Ghazal’s house and said it blocks morning sunshine from their modest, one-story home. Patricia Flowers alerted Souto about the house three years ago at a nearby Publix, where she works as a cashier.
David Flowers, 74, who has resigned himself to the presence of Ghazal’s house, said in an interview that he thinks “somebody got paid off, big time” to allow the house to be built.
“I don’t know what they’re really going to use it for,” he said. “Have you seen the mosque out there on Kendall Drive? This is just a miniature of it.”
Even if the house ends up being used for religious purposes, the county might have a hard time doing anything about it. Federal law bans municipalities from using zoning laws to prohibit places of worship.
The city of Hollywood, facing a potential federal religious discrimination lawsuit, had to pay a $2 million settlement in 2006 after trying to evict an Orthodox synagogue from operating out of two houses in the city.