Opponents of a proposed Islamic Center, school and mosque in west Bakersfield succeeded Tuesday in delaying the project and forcing its supporters to complete a costly Environmental Impact Report.
After the Board of Supervisors meeting where the matter was considered, a project consultant charged that the opposition -- which argued at one point that Muslims use a lot of water and would wake neighbors up early with their praying -- was religious, not environmentally based.
"Ignorance and bigotry seem to be the driving force in denying the applicants their rights," said real estate broker Frank Tripicchio. "There is a concerted effort to generate negative public opinion against this project."
The most vocal opponent, Nora Weber, said she is only concerned about the water and sewer impacts of the project.
"I don't care who they are or where they pray," she said.
Ultimately, Kern County supervisors voted to send the project -- at Driver Road and Stockdale Highway -- back to planning staff and ordered completion of a detailed investigation into the project's environmental impacts.
The Kern County Planning Department and Planning Commission had given the project a clean bill of environmental health last year. But opponents, led by a small group of homeowners on Buckaroo Court just north of the proposed school and mosque, appealed the decision. They submitted a list of specific concerns related to traffic, water and sewer use and a high pressure gas line that runs under the site.
County planners reversed their support. On Tuesday, Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said the environmental document used to support the project was no longer adequate.
County Counsel Theresa Goldner said an EIR will protect both the environment and the applicant from litigation by the Buckaroo Residents Group.
The Islamic Center of Bakersfield will now have to pay for a study that, Oviatt said, could cost in the neighborhood of $350,000.
Fatima Dadabhoy of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said project supporters look forward to working through the environmental report process with the county.
She said they are confident an EIR will prove the project complies with the law and supervisors will ultimately approve it.
Even though that outcome was clear, a small group of project opponents launched aggressive attacks against it during Tuesday's meeting.
Weber, a local insurance agent and Tea Party activist, called the project "nonsense" and said everyone who has had to spend time and money to fight it should be paid back by supporters.
She said the site is inadequate and the church and school will create huge impacts on the street, sewer and water systems in the area.
It was how she delivered her comments that triggered Tripicchio's ire.
Weber said the water supply for the project would be inadequate because Muslims follow washing rituals.
"It's just part of their procedure. Nothing wrong with it. But there is a lot of water use out there," she said.
She also said that Muslims pray very early in the morning, so neighbors' sleep would be disturbed.
Tripicchio said he is Roman Catholic and was both honored and saddened to be asked to represent the project before county planning officials and the Board of Supervisors.
He was honored to be a part of the project, he said. But he was sad that the Bakersfield Islamic Center had to find someone from outside its faith to speak for it.
"Where is the unity in the community?" he asked.
Other voices were raised in support of the project.
Resident Lois Watson said many Islamic buildings around the world are beautiful and she feels this project would be an asset to Bakersfield.
Other speakers called on the county to protect the Islamic community's right to worship as it wishes.