The no-parking sign didn’t really make sense. Nader Khan parked there anyway.
All along Finfar Court in Mississauga, signs stated parking was prohibited from 12 to 3 on Fridays. It seemed odd to Khan, since a large mosque — the Islamic Society of North America — was a few metres away and offered its main prayer service at the same time.
“When I first parked there, I genuinely thought the sign said no parking every day but Fridays,” said Khan, an Islamic singer and songwriter who had driven there to pray. “I thought, wow, how accommodating.”
But when he returned an hour later, he found that his car and all the others parked on both sides of the street in the light industrial area had been ticketed. “I was furious.”
A year later, Khan returned and saw the signs were still there. Instead of parking, he started taking photos and turned to Facebook to express his frustration. “Finfar Court: A most racist, discriminatory, Islamophobic street in the GTA, located in Mississauga Ontario,” he wrote to introduce the pictures.
The Facebook post sparked intense debate between those agreeing with Khan and those who thought the issue was merely a response to years of bad parking, including blocking driveways and parking too close to hydrants.
Across the GTA, places of worship have claimed intolerance and unfairness when their facilities face resistance from residents or their expansion plans and building permits are rejected by the city.
But a look at parking bylaws across the city and the outcomes of dozens of Ontario Municipal Board decisions suggests the real culprit is much more benign and mundane. It almost always comes down to indiscretions of the vehicular kind — traffic and parking.
“The truth is, places of worship have a need for a lot of parking,” said Joe D’Abramo, director of zoning and environmental planning for the City of Toronto. “Nobody wants to provide parking, because it takes up land and costs money to put it underground. But if we don’t require it, then they park on the streets and the community around it gets very upset.”
Toronto recently completed a review of its outdated zoning bylaws, including those for parking near a place of worship, and enacted them into law last week.
There was ample resistance. The Toronto Faith Coalition protested some of the zoning changes, concerned the parking requirements would make it impossible for existing places of worship to expand and new ones to set up.
“Parking is a big issue because it determines whether or not a church, synagogue and mosque can be built,” said Charles McVety, an evangelical Christian leader, who headed the Toronto Faith Coalition. “It’s fundamental, because if you do not have enough land to meet this high level of parking required, then you can’t build your building or expand it. They won’t approve it.”
D’Abramo said the changes were necessary. Not only were the bylaws old, but they were from pre-amalgamation and rules differed across the city. They also didn’t reflect the diversity of the city. “Some faiths have seating, and some faiths have no seating, so the standards are different depending on how you worship,” he said.
Generally, municipalities require a place of worship to provide parking based on complex formulas that account for the number of pews or square footage. The parking requirement is reduced if the religious centre is near transit or major city centres.
In recent years,the neighbourhood church has been replaced by mega-churches. According to a study commissioned by the City of Toronto on parking standards for a place of worship, the average size of a new place of worship built between 2000 and 2005 was more than double the average size of one built between 1975 and 1990. This means more people now drive to church. And, since many religious centres are set up in industrial areas — where land may be cheaper — public transit is rarely a realistic alternative.
A number of municipalities, including Brampton, Mississauga and Markham, have also conducted reviews of their parking bylaws around places of worship.
And it turns out nothing riles up the neighbours like bad parking and increased traffic. Infractions or even the perception that rules could be broken have been enough to ignite tensions and divide communities.
In Markham, a Taoist temple trying to build in a residential area faced heavy resistance from neighbours primarily due to fear of increased traffic and parking concerns — even though the temple said it expected attendance of 15 to 20 people at a time. The city voted against the temple’s plans for rezoning, and the matter eventually landed at the Ontario Municipal Board, which approved the building last summer payday loans online.
Ten years ago, city officials thwarted the plans of a Hindu temple in Scarborough to redesignate a property it purchased in an industrial zone into a religious facility. There were a number of concerns, including parking and lack of transit. The temple took its case to the OMB, but the city’s concerns were upheld.
And a new mosque project in Markham has divided an otherwise peaceful community with concerns that the construction of the facility would create a traffic nightmare and lead to parking chaos in a neighbouring residential area. The matter was further complicated by what the mosque called a “typo” on its website suggesting it could hold 1,600people when it only had approval for 500 — and parking accommodations for such. The mosque has since decreased the planned size of its worship space and will provide 188 parking spaces.
On the surface,the primary concern appears to be good planning. But there are some who question whether the zoning issues are simply a mask for underlying tensions.
“It becomes an oddly intense battle when it comes to parking and mundane zoning issues around a mosque or temple,” said Jason Hackworth, a geography professor at the University of Toronto who wrote a paper on the collision of faith and economic development in the city’s industrial zones. “You have to ask yourself why this is the case, as zoning issues normally don’t invoke such a reaction.”
But he, too, is careful. “Of course, something like that is hard to prove.”
Especially when mosque officials agree that their congregants are also at fault. “The officials are very frustrated with the small minority of people who park badly,” said Khan, the Mississauga man offended by the signs. But Khan still thinks the city went too far: “Have tow trucks on call, tow the cars that are being inconsiderate and fine them again and tow them again. Punishing an entire community or the actions of a few is very problematic.”
Mosque officials say they constantly make announcements about parking etiquette to their congregants, and have even organized a shuttle from free parking lots nearby to accommodate overflow. But they were surprised when the city put up the signs without any consultation.
The bylaw was enacted in December 2011 after the city received numerous other parking complaints from businesses, said Mississauga transportation commissioner Martin Powell. The staff report on the matter only refers to the concerns of one citizen. And the city did not send out a petition to local residents and businesses, as is the normal process, the report states.
“I know it seems a bit strange because of the hours, but that’s when we have a problem,” said Powell. “If there are safety issues involved, then staff will make recommendations to council, and that is what we did here.”
But Powell is quick to point out that the mosque isn’t the only place of worship that faces odd parking restrictions. Last spring, a number of churches in Mississauga were shocked to find their congregants could no longer park on the streets nearby from 10-1 on Sundays.
“We have been at our location for 19 years, and there has never been any problem,” said Desmond Singh, a pastor with Mississauga Gospel Assembly. “But it seems like the city has been targeting our church hours.”
Some of his congregants and those from the nearby St. Joseph Syriac Catholic Church took a petition to city hall, but their protest fell on deaf ears. A member of St. Joseph’s church wrote about the restrictions on a website on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms claiming that it infringed upon the rights of parishioners to freely practise their religion.
The Toronto Faith Coalition’s McVety believes further restrictions on where a place of worship can be set up will make the problem even worse. Toronto and Ajax have recently banned places of worship from setting up in industrial zones — forcing new places of worship into expensive residential areas.
McVety says the coalition is considering taking Toronto’s new zoning bylaws to the OMB.
“We bring in hundreds of thousands of new Canadians in the GTA every year, and then we pass laws to restrict their ability to worship.”
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