July 20, 2012
by Christine Yeres
On June 27, the Zoning Board of Appeals held open for continuation on July 25 a hearing on the environmental effects of a plan to construct a mosque on Pinesbridge Road as set out in the Upper Westchester Muslim Society’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). In the meantime, the ZBA has referred the DEIS back to the Planning Board for its comments on wetlands, steep slope and tree removal issues. The application returned to the Planning Board on Tuesday.
Counsel to the Planning Board [who is also counsel to the Zoning Board], Les Steinman, took care to separate the Planning Board’s job—to comment on wetlands, steep slopes activity and tree removal permits—from that of the Zoning Board of Appeals, which has ultimate authority over whether to issue the special use permit required for the mosque to be constructed. The Planning Board’s meeting on Tuesday was not a hearing, Steinman noted, but rather a work session in which board members and staff would discuss those issues over which the Planning Board has permitting authority.
In an opening presentation, the Upper Westchester Muslim Society’s attorney, Michael Zarin of the law firm Zarin and Steinmetz, reminded Planning Board members that “religious uses, under common law and federal law, are given greater flexibility in evaluation,” and that “municipalities are supposed to make every effort to accommodate religious uses” which, like educational purposes, “are deemed to be beneficial to neighborhoods.”
Zarin argued that 87% of two of the four acres of wetland buffers that would be impacted by the proposed mosque are “fairly disturbed already,” and that UWMS planned to restore an abandoned tennis court within the buffer to its natural state and to reconnect three wetlands puzzle pieces—two small ones to a center larger one. The pieces will, over time, become a single area again, as they once were. UWMS intends also to remove debris and invasive species “that are reducing the functioning of the wetlands,” returning them to “a move vibrant and high-quality” state.
Tree removal and mitigation
The UWMS proposes removal of 192 trees of a size regulated by the town, mainly from the northern part of the parcel, along which the building and parking would be situated. The southern half of the wedge-shaped property where the wetlands are concentrated will be undisturbed, according to Zarin, except by measures to restore compromised wetlands and buffer areas to their natural state.
The cost of replacing trees that are removed—a requirement of the town code—was around $100,000, which would be considered a prohibitive cost, Zarin told board members, from which his client would ask to be released by waiver from the Planning Board.
Planning board connects tree removal and parking
Board members focused on the 217 parking spaces shown in the current plan. “All parking during the high holy days is on-site,” noted Zarin, adding, “We were encouraged by both the ZBA and the neighbors to do that.”
Planning Board member Tom Curley pointed out to Zarin that the site plan seemed to favor wetlands preservation-and-mitigation, and asked whether his client had considered another alternative, one that places value on staying farther from an adjoining residential property to the north.
Zarin responded that the applicant had attempted to “strike a balance,” but would be open to recommendations from the Planning Board. “If we could do it in a reasonable manner,” he said, “we’re open to it.”
Curley pointed out the importance of protecting the entire neighboring residential property to the north, since there may be changes to that property in future. Pulling the parking farther from the border might also reduce the number of trees slated for removal, Curley noted. “Since your wetland buffer mitigation plan is so terrific,” said Curley, “we may decide that a little less wetland buffer in the interest of protecting the residential [is appropriate].”
Planning board asks applicant to reconsider the size of the parking lot
Curley asked the applicant to examine the size of the overflow parking lot. On most days, Zarin explained, attendees would park in the 16 spaces along the front of the mosque, then fill the 27 behind it before advancing to fill one-quarter to one-third of the 217 for most purposes, with “valet tandem parking” for the community’s two high holy days each year.
“One-quarter of the parking would be used weekly, and the remaining 75% of it would be used twice a year?” asked Curley. “The object [then] would be to minimize the amount of impervious—and even pervious—material for those portions of the lot only being used twice a year. I’ve done a lot of campus planning, and whether for football games or for a carnival, overflow parking parks in a field. Let’s go back and see how big that lot really needs to be.”
“The board is identifying an alternative parking strategy,” said counsel Les Steinman, who explained to Zarin that even if future use indicated the need for more parking spaces, the applicant’s plan might still identify what’s needed immediately and what could be “land-banked,” that is, space reserved for future parking.
Addressing Zarin, Chairman of Planning Board, Richard Brownell, added, “We’re trying to minimize environmental impacts, and I know you mentioned that tree replacement is just too much money. My sense is that you can reduce the amount of money you put into the parking area and you’ll have money to [pay for tree replacement].”
Noting that 140 trees were slated for removal in for the overflow parking lot Crespi asked, “Is it worth the environmental cost for only two days of the year?”
Zarin noted that in the proposed plan 130 of the spaces were pervious pavers [as opposed to impervious asphalt]. “But a lawn would be better, responded a planning board member, “if only used twice a year.”
“I think the board has already expressed its preference for off-site parking for big holidays,” said Steinman. “We have had these conditions imposed on other religious facilities in our community.”
The hearing before the Zoning Board continues on July 25.
Related: “Zoning board hearing on impacts of proposed mosque draws a crowd of 150,” NCNOW.org, 7/2/12
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