Zoning Board finds environmental review for mosque complete, sets public hearing for July 30
Monday, July 14, 2014
by Christine Yeres
The Zoning Board of Appeals’ environmental review of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society’s proposed mosque on Pinesbridge Road began in 2006; in 2012 public hearings were held on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Responses provided to issues raised by the DEIS took the form of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), and on July 1 the ZBA declared it complete. On July 30 the ZBA will hold a public hearing on both the FEIS and the special permit for the mosque. The ZBA is “lead agency” on the application.
According to representatives of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society—Daniel Richmond of Zarin & Steinmetz and Deigo Villareale of John Myers Consulting, PC—remaining issues from 2012—where to park cars, whether the building could be reduced in size, whether it was screened well enough from its nearest neighbors to the north—have been resolved.
Richmond and Villareale explained to ZBA members that
• the Upper Westchester Muslim Society has obtained commitments from other organizations that will permit attendees on its two high holy days to park and be shuttled by bus to the mosque. Buses would return to wait for the return trip at the location from which they originated.
• UWMS will cap the number of attendees on high holy days at 650. People will register for high holy day attendance in advance.
• the former plan to have up to 217 parking spaces has been reduced to 120 striped parking spaces, with 15 additional spaces “land-banked” for possible future use.
• the reduction in parking spaces saves cutting down 71 trees.
• the EIS studies calculate the 120 spaces will accommodate an average of three passengers per vehicle (so 360 people), leaving 290 people (from, say, between 90 and 100 cars) to be shuttled by bus for high holy days from any of six off-site parking locations.
• UWMS will give the town notice 45 days in advance of which of the six off-site parking locations it will use—and there will be no need to use all six at once.
• where the northern property line—to which the mosque is closest to any residence—had a vegetative buffer of 20 feet, it will now have one of 40 feet and increased landscaping for screening. Instead of a single row of evergreens there will be more shrubbery and understory plantings, for a more layered effect, and staggered to make a “four seasons” buffer.
All in all, the 8.33-acre site would permit building coverage of 20%. UWMS’s plan for its two-story 25,000-square-foot mosque uses less than 5%. And while 50% of the property could bear impervious surfaces, the plan calls for 12.6%.
ZBA member Gerry Golub asked whether it was wise to reduce on-site parking, because attendees might consider it an inconvenience to park off-site and board a shuttle.
ZBA member Harvey Boneparth asked whether additional lanes on Pinesbridge Road could make entry and exit easier. Richmond and Villareale maintained that the studies did not show the need for any.
Can the mosque be smaller?
“As to the mass of the building,” said ZBA member Tony Giardina, “from day one of the hearings, the public has been out there saying this is too big, this is too big, this is too big. And [your] answer has always been, ‘This is what we need,’ and, ‘This is what we have to have.’ Is there a better answer to that? Is there any compromise possible to reduce this somewhat to the alleviate some of the concerns of the public but still give the UWMS the room and the facilities they need?”
“This is a religious institution and this is the facility that meets their programmatic needs,” said Richmond. “I understand the community wants a smaller facility; that’s not what works for the Upper Westchester Muslim Society. And again, I don’t want to beat the drum, but there is significant state and federal law that enables and allows religious uses such as this when the applicant has certain needs, that your board needs to work with.”
“I think we’ve worked and shown that this facility that the applicant needs,” continued Richmond, “can be designed in a way that avoids and mitigates all its potential environmental impacts. The community wants a smaller facility, but I think they have to respect what the UWMS needs.”
“I understand that you meet the zoning,” said Giardina. “The question I asked is a question I knew what the answer would be. I just wanted to ask the question to have it in the record.”
Hussein al-Zogby of UWMS rose to add, “I respect your question, and rest assured, everything we’ve tried to do here since 2006 is to be respectful and accommodative as much as possible and we think we’ve demonstrated that.
We’ve asked for no variances. [The mosque] could be bigger, but we wanted it to fill our current needs [but also] we don’t have to come back to you.”
Golub asked once more of other ZBA members, “Does aanyone else feel about parking the way I do? Especially as time goes on?”
“We could try it the way it is,” said Giardina, “and you have the banked parking spaces. Time will tell if you need them or not. Maybe we need to put something in our conditions requiring you to revisit this in the future if necessary.”
Now that the ZBA has found the FEIS complete, town staff will circulate it to all involved agencies and interested parties, then begin to prepare a “Findings” statement for the ZBA to consider.
ZBA counsel, Jennifer Gray of Keane & Beane, explained further: “In the Findings statement you have the opportunity to look over the entire environmental record and determine whether the environmental impacts have been mitigated to the greatest extent possible and to attach conditions to the project and you’ll have another opportunity at the approval or disapproval of the special permit to attach conditions as well.”
Richmond pointed out that although a public hearing on the Final EIS is not strictly required by NYS’s Environmental Quality Review Act, he understood that the ZBA wished to hold one. He asked that it be combined with the public hearing on the special permit.
The ZBA has set Wednesday, July 30 for the public hearing on both the FEIS and the special permit.
The video of the ZBA meeting on the mosque application lasts 1 hour and 9 minutes.
Editor’s Note: Below are several excerpts from Volume I responses to persistent questions about whether the mosque is a permitted use in a residential neighborhood and how parking on the two high holy days will be managed.
Latest changes to the plan:
The proposed project is situated on a large, 8.33 acre property, is a permitted Special Permit use within the R-2A zoning district, and is designed in accordance with the Zoning Code of the Town with no variances required. Under New York law, the inclusion of a permitted use in a zoning code is tantamount to a legislative finding that the permitted use is in harmony with the general zoning plan and will not adversely affect the neighborhood. The FEIS Alternative Plan doubles the landscaped setback to the properties to the north from 20 feet to 40 feet, providing additional visual mitigation. In addition, this plan reduces the proposed parking by 45%, from 217 spaces with tandem parking to 120 spaces. This reduces the size of the overflow parking area by 138 feet. The 120 spaces provided are less than that required by the Zoning Code, which requires 132 spaces. However, area for 15 parking spaces will be “landbanked”, meaning that an area has been reserved for these spaces if they are ever determined to be necessary, but they will not be constructed at this time. Instead, this area will be left in its natural, vegetated state. These measures further reduce the project’s visual, impervious, stormwater, tree removal, steep slope and site disturbance impacts.
Number of attendees at services or events:
Applicant is willing to limit the occupancy of the entire facility at all times, including the once yearly High Holy Days (Eid ul-adha and Eid ul-fitr) to 650 persons (Prayer Hall Occupancy plus Greeting Hall Occupancy plus portion of Social/Activity Hall). The maximum number of individuals proposed to use the facility is 650. The Applicant will post signage at the entry to the facility that occupancy is limited to 650 persons per zoning approval. The Applicant proposes to issue tickets for entry into the facility for the events that would approach the 650 maximum occupancy which is expected to occur only for the two major annual Islamic Holiday celebrations. Individuals without tickets would not be permitted entry on those days. The Project’s environmental analysis confirms that the area roadways can accommodate the traffic associated with the level of attendance without significant adverse impacts.
New York State Law:
As noted in Section III.A.2.a of the DEIS, the Zoning Code of the Town of New Castle permits a “place of worship, including parish house and religious school”, in residence districts (which would include the R-2A District) as a “special use” permitted upon the grant of a special permit from the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, subject to the approval procedure set forth in the Zoning Code, Section 60-432. Under New York law, the inclusion of a permitted use in a zoning code is tantamount to a legislative finding that the permitted use is in harmony with the general zoning plan and will not adversely affect the neighborhood.
Parking Locations for Use by UPMS:
First Congregational Church
Orchard Ridge Road
Presbyterian Church of Mt. Kisco
South Bedford Road
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers
Ryder Road, Ossining
Ryder Road, Ossining
Edith Macy Conference Center
You can view the comments made during public hearings and the responses to them in Volume I of the FEIS; access the actual transcript of the public hearings in Volume II of the FEIS.
Related: Zoning Board closes public hearing on West End mosque, accepts written comments till August 24, NCNOW.org, August 3, 2012
Planning board asks UWMS to look at alternative that shifts mosque south, NCNOW.org, August 3, 2012
Planning Board prepares final comments on mosque DEIS, NCNOW.org, August 10, 2012
Planning board suggests that mosque parking lot be reduced and trees saved, NCNOW.org, July 20, 2012