Recent protests over the mosque near Ground Zero seem to have spawned similar protests across the country, from Murfreesboro, TN to Temecula, CA to Sheboygan, WI where proposed local mosques have become lightening rods for religious intolerance expressed in the context of allowable uses of land.

             An August 8, 2010 New York Times article (“Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition”) listed the locations of some of the copy cat protests and made a point that, in a twisted way, caused me to respect the protesters: they’re being honest. The article’s main point seemed to be that the protesters aren’t trying to hide behind traffic or property values or other land use considerations.  Rather, they’re placing their true sentiments on the table of discussion for the whole world to see: they don’t want Muslims living in their communities.

             For almost 25 years I have spent countless afternoons and evenings in the council chambers and meetings rooms of towns and counties in every corner of North Carolina and in parts of Virginia and South Carolina where adjoining and nearby property owners protested everything from a subdivision strikingly similar to their own to a cell tower to a corner store.  If there is one thread of commonality, it is that the forum provided to discuss the use of land often becomes a cauldron of raw emotions where human fears and hatreds are disguised in the rational language of density, stream protection, property values and school capacity.

             It’s not the text, but the subtext.  It’s not the actual words that fall on your ears but what is left unsaid that often matters most.  The volume, tone of voice and intensity of expression may shout “I am terrified of change in my little part of the world” but the uttered words discuss traffic volume. After all, what is said and what is communicated in any context are often two different things.

             Anyone who has served long on a planning board or elected body has heard neighbors mention a rumor that the proposed subdivision is secretly planned as a “low income housing project,” a convenient way of rallying support from other neighbors who may not want blacks or Hispanics or “those others” living nearby.  Listen closely and you will understand that it’s not that they fear that their home values will decline but that their own sense of self worth will decline if people they consider less worthy live a block away.

             This summer I represented an entrepreneurial family from Mexico who wanted to rezone three corner lots in Greensboro. One of the neighbors listed all of the Hispanic stores and businesses that already exist in his part of town as though his argument was about retail supply and demand.  In reality he was saying “we have too many Hispanics near where I live.”

             Coded language in the land use context is far more the rule than the exception.  I have developed a deep appreciation for the professional planning staffs in large and small counties and towns who don’t succumb to the mob psychology of the protesters and who stick to their guns, in spite of occasional verbal reprimands from elected officials for making recommendations based upon the adopted comprehensive plan and prevailing principles of land use planning.  And I have lost commensurate respect for the elected officials who, by habit or personality, tend to channel and pander to the basest fears and emotions of the electorate.

             My law school alma mater (UNC-Chapel Hill) together with its sister institution, the UNC School of Government, support one of the best land use faculties in the country for understanding the historical, theoretical and applied aspects of land use and zoning.  If I had the mega millions, I would fund a cross-disciplinary program that would blend land use studies at UNC-CH with the university’s cultural anthropology and psychology disciplines so that some of the most critical components in land use decisions – the components that find hiding places behind the rocks and in the crevasses of surrogate issues – can be studied and understood.  After all, all of us are territorial.  We all have different tolerances for change.  And when our lives fall into the meaningless rhythm of daily work and evening sitcoms it feels good to be able to rally and protest.  But search for these topics in a textbook on zoning law and you won’t find them, despite the fact that real decisions in real life rise and fall on their expressions.

             The protests over new mosques are actually a good thing if the discussions are honest and direct and enable us to discuss the real rather than the concocted issues bothering citizens.  The debate over the American promise of religious freedom and the meaning of American liberty to believe as one chooses without the government deciding which political and religious beliefs are acceptable should always be vigorous and ongoing.

             Our country has weathered anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, and anti-denominational protests before.  We’ve had our wave of anti-communist hysteria where policies were made and laws were passed and wars were waged upon the assumption that there was a Communist in every closet.  The current wave of “anti-other” is little different except that the context is the appropriate use, through zoning, of local street corners.

             The real debate should not be about whether Islam – or Christianity or Judaism – is good or bad or right or wrong.  The real debate should be whether we ever give our local, state or federal government the power to decide for us, through zoning or other laws, which religious beliefs are acceptable.

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