"It's not over," said a member of the Muslim community as he and fellow mosque supporters filed out of the Concert Hall at Norwalk City Hall Wednesday, June 6, after the Zoning Commission voted 4-3 against plans for a proposed mosque on Fillow Street.
The Al-Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk's proposal, which was first submitted to the Planning and Zoning Commission in the spring of 2010, called for a 27,000-square-foot building, including a prayer hall, classrooms and a community/recreational center, as well as 89 parking spots, on a 1.5-acre property.
The property lies within a AAA residential zone, where places of worship are allowed by permit.
The biggest point of contention for the planning committee and the other zoning commissioners at planning meetings prior to the vote was the community/recreation center and the lack of parking to accommodate it.
With an accessory-use building, no additional parking is required according to city regulations, but the majority of the commissioners believe that the 24,000-square-foot center did not fit the definition of an accessory-use space.
"The Norwalk Zoning Commission voted to deny our application to build a mosque in Norwalk on the property that we purchased" said Farhan Memon, a spokesperson for the mosque and a member of its board.
"I'm very disappointed in the commission's vote. I believe that it is illegal. And we are going to take every opportunity to examine the record and then decide whether we are going to appeal this case and take it to the Supreme Court of Connecticut.
"I believe the commission is both wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. The parking discussion had to do with the multipurpose building that is appended to the prayer hall. By our reading of that law, that multipurpose building is an accessory-use and Norwalk's own regulations do not specify parking for accessory-use buildings."
Memon also said that the way the meeting was conducted last Wednesday night "railroaded" the denial.
"I think many of the commissioners expected that they would have an opportunity to vote on a modification and modify the building themselves," Memon said. "As to whether or not we apply for a modification, that is certainly one of the things we will be thinking about as we prepare to file our next move."
"I believe there is a need for a mosque in the city of Norwalk and I believe that this site is large enough to support a mosque," Blank said. "I don't believe that the applicant's proposal to construct a 27,000-square-foot Islamic center is appropriate. Nor do I believe the application complies with special permit requirements.
"My hope was that that commission would approve construction of the building that we refer to in our meetings as a mosque building with Phase I construction. And that tonight we would deny the application with respect to the Phase II construction or what we've referred to as the community center. I believe that that modified approval would allow the applicant to satisfy the special permit requirements and also provide a balance between the needs of the mosque and the concerns of its neighbors."
Neighbors who had opposed the mosque from the start organized a group called Keep 127 Fillow Street Residential. Its members were residents of the Fillow Ridge and Stone Gate condominium complexes, as well as adjacent property owners and others who live in this residential neighborhood.
They released the following statement after the vote was in:
"We support the Zoning Commission's vote to deny the special permit. The concerns the commission had in regard to the special permit are the same concerns we as a neighborhood group expressed, regarding density of use (a 27,000-foot-structure on a 1.5-acre residential lot) , traffic (on a narrow, two-lane windy road near three schools) and parking (insufficent spaces for size of structures with no overflow plan)."
At the start of the meeting, Joe Santo, chairman of the commisson, outlined the nine reasons why the Planning Committee was recommending denial of the mosque.
Throughout the public hearings for the mosque in April and during the special planning committee meetings, those who spoke against the plan were careful to note that their opposition was not based on religious differences.
Last Wednesday evening, Mushak underscored that point.
"There are four centuries of religious diversity and religious tolerance in Norwalk," Mushak said. "And this application has nothing to do with that strong tradition. I think Norwalk needs a beautiful and thriving mosque to serve the Muslim community. Unfortunately, I don't think that this site is the proper location for it based on density of use as described in our special permit regulation."
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