ZBA closes public hearing on environmental review and special permit for mosque

September 26, 2014
by Christine Yeres

The Zoning Board of Appeals conducted what turned out to be its last public hearing on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the special permit application for a mosque in the West End of New Castle. In July, the ZBA carried over the hearing to Monday, September 22 in order to hear from residents who might have been away over the summer, then closed both hearing matters and announced that written comments could be submitted for ten days more.  Next, the ZBA will craft its “Findings” based on the FEIS.

The public hearing

Together, members of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society and residents of the West End filled the assembly room of town hall.  Picking up with questions raised in the summer public hearing, UWMS counsel Michael Zarin updated the ZBA on matters of wetlands and drainage, traffic and parking, setbacks and screening.  He reminded them that both state and federal laws permitting the special use permit for the mosque are based on policy decisions that schools and houses of religion are beneficial to communities.  The courts created such laws, he explained, “to protect the uses from community hostility.”  A house of worship, he said was “not more objectionable to neighboring properties than some other permitted uses,” such as a school or municipal use would cause.
From UWMS’s point of view, Zarin has previously reminded the ZBA, their building coverage of around 5% is far below the 20% coverage the eight-acre property would permit.  Plans show a two-story building of 25,000 square feet of floorspace.

That same matter of coverage looks different to the neighbors: 25,000 square feet of floorspace is ten times the size of a typical 2,500-square-foot house.  Neighbors’ statements centered on community character and their property values. One resident claimed that houses are not selling on a particular nearby street because of the mosque proposal.  Many referred to the sharp difference they see between an institution-size building, whether religious or not—“Just the size is objectionable,” said one resident—and the surrounding two-acre single family properties.

Some neighbors pressed the ZBA to think of its job as protecting the many residents who live in the area rather than the relatively few UWMS members who are New Castle residents.  Later, a UWMS member pointed out in response that “we are a minority so wherever this mosque is built, members will be coming from various towns.  Give us a chance and welcome us and I promise we will not disappoint.”

Members of UWMS emphasized their desire to move from their cramped warehouse space in Thornwood to a place of their own, as other religions in New Castle have.  Traffic mitigation measures include showing proof to the town of parking accommodations at other locations 45 days before each of their two high holy days per year.

Neighbors were skeptical.  “Car doors being closed, conversation in the parking lot—amplified with large gatherings especially at night when all is dead still.  When leaves are gone from the trees the parade of headlights will be particularly intrusive.  Security lights on timers—motion sensitive or on all night long.  Our neighborhood is totally dark.  That’s how we like it, that’s why we moved here.”

A UWMS member who lives in Yonkers now but intends to move to new Castle “where my boys can more easily play outside,” told ZBA members that when her father learned that her current place of worship is a warehouse, he asked her when she would have a real place of worship. “I can understand their caution,” said her father, but a mosque was constructed in Amherst has now raised property values.

“The last thing you want,” she continued, “is for outsiders to come into a community and propose a huge structure, so I find myself on both sides of the proverbial fence.  I’m asking for the board to approve it, but would like you to think about Muslims.  We are not just people who pray five times a day, have two high holy days and really good food, but we are honest and respectful and believe that God will hold us accountable for what we do.  My own personal word is that I will do my best with the town and UWMS to mitigate as much as possible.”

“Nobody is against mosque,” said a resident of Overlook and member of the Still Lake community.  “I’m against the size of this structure; I moved here for the houses, for the children, the beach community.  I lived through [Hurricane] Sandy.  Water will go the other way [toward Still Lake, contrary to what the environmental review shows].  My children won’t be able to play on the beach and in the sand.  [This application] should have been cut out a long, long time ago.  My other concerns: my children play in the street.  They’ll no longer be able to play outside.”  The construction alone, he said, with trucks coming and going will alter his family’s life.

“There are about 2,000 mosques in the U.S., said Khusro Elley, a 15-year resident of New Castle, “Yes, everybody is scared of the unknown, but we have a record showing that life changes for the better.  There’s an eight-acre piece of land.  What does anyone think the eight acre piece is there for?  It’s there to be built on.  OK, you want private housing, you don’t want a mosque. OK but let’s not say there will not be additional traffic, more water use [with the building of housing].”

“If you could bring the comments down a bit…,” said ZBA Chair Ken Cooper.  “People here are reacting to the intensity of the impact and it’s different than a single family home.”

“There are 1 million Muslims in NYC.  They are 2% of population in Westchester,” said Elley.  “Where are they going to worship?  You can’t say this is not our problem.  All you can say is whatever is allowed by the law we will abide by it.  We’re sorry that people feel things might change; all we can say is things will change for the better.  We’ve heard these arguments. We hope this is the final hearing. I know you want to bend over backwards for the community, but let’s put a closure to this, make a decision and move on.”

“What needs to be considered by you,” said an Ossining resident to the ZBA, “is the unintended consequences that you will be responsible for forever after.  This isn’t about religion.  It’s about a building and the impact of that building.  The point is that a building is going to be built that’s huge.  In your prior cases [this evening] you mentioned the ‘adverse effects’ of a walk-in closet or a deck.  But a 25,000 square foot spaceship…”

“We’ve taken five minutes on decks and five years on this project,” quipped Cooper.

“You’re all intelligent, thoughtful and fair people,” said the Ossining resident, “who’ve seen the results of bad decisions and I hope you don’t make one.”

“We purchased the property in 2004,” said Ali Javed, a resident of New Castle and member of the UWMS. “We met with the building inspector and with [the town’s consultants at the time] F. P. Clark.  We were told to follow the code.  We have played very fairly, cordially, and with a lot of patience.  We’ve met with neighbors to answer questions.  I hope you close the hearing tonight.  I hope we have met all the requirements for this application.”

“You heard passion on both sides tonight,” said UWMS counsel Zarin. “When you build a house of worship in any residential neighborhood it raises many of the same issues you’ve heard tonight. Over he last five years this project—because it’s taken so long—has gotten better.  Design, setback, landscaped it’s not going to have such an impact.”

The last speaker, Nicole Richet, urged the ZBA to “balance the rights of the residents and the needs of the applicant.”

Written comments will be accepted for ten days from the close of the September 22 public hearing.
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Related: ZBA continues public hearings on mosque environmental review and special permit to September, NCNOW.org, 8/5/14

The pubic hearing on the mosque application begins at the 1-hour and 42-minute mark and runs for around two hours.

Town of New Castle Zoning Board Meeting 9/22/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

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