FREDERICK - Four miles down the road from the Wal-Mart, where the new housing tracts disappear into rolling green fields, Khalil Elshazly found what was missing in his life.
A place to pray.
Here, on 100 acres of overgrown farmland surrounded by scrubby trees, he and fellow Muslims want to build a mosque. But where they envision Frederick County's first Islamic house of worship, some see a place to draw the line on suburban sprawl.
Two of the five county commissioners have expressed reservations about allowing the mosque to tap into public water and sewer lines. Nearby residents argue it could lead to unchecked growth. A few admit they fear increased traffic and the presence of strangers in their rural community.
Local Muslim leaders are frustrated by the drawn-out debate over what they believed to be a routine request. Some worry that it reflects a bias against their religion.
Plans for the mosque - and the opposition that has arisen over the past six months - have provoked sharp arguments over diversity and development in this fast-suburbanizing stretch of Western Maryland. Several hundred people are expected to turn out tonight when the Islamic Society of Frederick makes a formal presentation to the county commissioners and asks for their consent.
"We're not coming in with a strip mall or 100 homes," says Elshazly, 40, an engineer who moved to Frederick from New York City four years ago and is the society's president. "For them to claim it will open the door for development, it's nonsense, it's rubbish. It's a scare tactic."
Frederick's Muslim community, like the county itself, is growing rapidly with the arrival of more and more computer industry workers and their families. The faithful crowd into a small house for Friday prayers. Men are often left standing outside. Some families drive a half-hour to the closest mosque in Hagerstown; others worship in Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Baltimore.
Initially, the 200 Muslim families here hoped to build a mosque in downtown Frederick. Their first attempt failed, just as they were looking for land for an Islamic cemetery that would be the first in Maryland. The 100 acres for sale a few miles south of the city limits seemed an answer to prayers.
They decided they would put a mosque there, too, and eventually open a religious retreat.
No one in the county disputes that the Islamic Society technically has the right to do so on the land it has contracted to buy. County zoning laws permit houses of worship in agricultural areas.
But because the property is part of a stretch of farmland considered off-limits for development under the state's Smart Growth policy, the mosque would be denied access to county water and sewer lines.
The mosque could be built if it used well water and a septic system. Part of the property is marshy, however, and soil tests show it could only sustain a septic system adequate for a single-family house.
Muslim leaders were undeterred because they assumed the county would allow them to tap into its lines. Four years ago, the county commissioners granted that exemption for a baseball camp proposed for the same site. Two years later, the county agreed to a second exemption - for a planned sports complex in the adjacent fields.
Neither project got off the ground. By the time the Islamic Society came forward in the spring, new commissioners had been elected. One of them was Jan Gardner, the only Democrat among the commissioners. She had campaigned on a promise to curb growth.
"When you think about it, `access to denied access' is an oxymoron," she says. "If you make a lot of exceptions and allow people to tap into denied water and sewer, where does it stop? It would be a precedent-setting decision in my mind."
Commissioner Lennie Thompson agrees. Like Gardner, he argues, "It doesn't have anything to do with religion, it's a policy decision. You have to have rules to go by to manage growth."
Before the Islamic Society's application could be heard, Gardner put forward a proposal to strictly prohibit the county from waiving its hookup policy.
Local Muslims were infuriated. Their lawyer found an e-mail from Gardner asking that the county planning commission review her amendment before considering their request. Most of the 200 families turned out to protest, and Gardner's proposal failed on a tie vote.
"We don't have animosity against anyone. We judge people by their actions," says Hisham Elbasha, 47, a software engineer and the society's treasurer. "She tried to push that amendment ahead of us and make it effective immediately. That's why a lot of people were suspicious and questioned her motives."
Since then, suspicion has grown on both sides. Mosque opponents point out that the Islamic Society's lawyer is also employed by Martin Marietta, a large defense contractor that wants to rezone 400 acres of farmland in the county for light industrial use. The mosque, they suggest, is being used as a front.
But local Muslims say they have heard from many neighbors, clergy and longtime county residents who support them. They gained a step last month when the planning commission agreed that the mosque fits in with the county's 1998 land-use plan. Several planners say they don't support the proposed sewer and water hookup, but they are leaving it up to the commissioners to make the call.