ZBA continues public hearings on mosque environmental review and special permit to September

Tuesday, August 5, 2014
by Christine Yeres

In an assembly room packed with West End residents, the Zoning Board of Appeals heard their fears over traffic, parking and septic capacity and property values if the mosque proposed for the eight-acre property on Pinesbridge Road is approved.

Residents pleaded with ZBA members not to close the public hearings—one on the environmental review, the other on the special permit—because, they believed, many were on vacation and unable to attend in summer months.

Public comments

Residents emphasized the rural character of the area, zoned for two-acre residential.  Having witnessed earlier the same evening the ZBA’s denial of a variance for a concrete “sport court” on Pond View Lane—already constructed, without the necessary permits—judging it an “undesirable change to the character of the neighborhood,” several West End residents extended the comparison to the far greater impact on their neighborhood of a religious institution in their midst.  The “sport court,” however, did not comply with zoning laws and the owners will now have to remove it; the proposed mosque complies with zoning laws and so does not require variances.

Although zoning laws would permit 20% of the lot to be covered by building footprint, the two-story mosque with a footprint of around 12,000 covers less than 5%.  Still, neighbors referred repeatedly to the project as an attempt “to squeeze a square peg into round hole” and drove home their opinions that their neighborhood was an inappropriate location for a religious institution, no matter what the religion.  [For only two commenters that evening was Islam the issue.]

“It’s about developing the property in a way that it shouldn’t be developed,” said one nearby neighbor. “Traffic, traffic, traffic—that’s what this is all about.”  Another pointed to the increased traffic from the development of the nearby Amsterdam property into two soccer fields.

Ali Javed, a member of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society, explained to the ZBA and people filling the assembly room that representatives of the UPWMS had met in 2003 with the building inspector.  “He said, ‘We’ll make arrangements F.P. Clark.  We showed all our cards.  F.P. Clark said, ‘These are the rules.  Go by the rules and you’ll get it.’”  In fact, said Javed, the present plan required no variances at all.

“On two days a year, three hours each day, there’s traffic—six hours a year of traffic,” said Javed, referring to the two high holy days that draw the peaks in attendance, capped voluntarily by UWMS at 650, which will be controlled by issuing permits.  “Out of those six hours, so much passion not to have this project?” he asked. “Please, give us a chance.”

Javed was supported by another member of UWMS, who told ZBA members that she herself allows her Jewish friends to park in her driveway on their temple’s two high holy days. 

One resident interpreted support for the mosque from other religious groups at the public hearing as “being told by other religions that we’re intolerant.”

Recognizing the area as “environmentally sensitive,” the Planning Board, noted Ursula Hoskins, had directed the applicant to locate the septic system outside the wetland buffer.  The applicant’s response in the FEIS, she said, was that “every effort will be made to make the system as compact as possible, while locating the primary and expansion areas, to the extent possible, outside the wetland buffer.”  She predicted that, given the placement of the building and the parking on the site, it would be difficult to avoid the buffer.  And the applicant’s mitigation plan to offset any impact to the buffer, she said, will fail as a result of the size and type of the plantings proposed.

Development, said Hoskins, should be “consistent and respectful of its neighbors.” With a floor area of 25,000 square feet, she said, the mosque was out of context with the existing community character, among homes that averaged 2,500 square feet.  According to New Castle’s town code, however, a “place of worship, including parish hall and religious school,” is a permitted use in residential districts of quarter-acre through two-acre zoning, subject to development plan approval procedures.

A Yorktown high school girl, a member of UWMS, told ZBA members, “No matter where we go we’d probably run into opposition.  But it’s a place of worship, the most quiet possible place in any neighborhood.  We’re looking forward to being your neighbors.”

Although the ZBA is lead agency on the environmental review, issues of lot merging, steep slopes, wetlands and tree removal must still go to the Planning Board for approval.  The public hearing before the ZBA last Wednesday was an optional one on the Final Environmental Impact Statement; another, non-optional, was held alongside it for the special permit over which the ZBA has authority.

At the end of the evening, ZBA members—with the exception of Harvey Boneparth, who seemed inclined to close at least the FEIS hearing—voted to hold open both hearings.  “I feel,” said Boneparth, “that the special permit can be structured in such a way as to deal with any additional comments material to those [environmental] issues.”

David Zarin, attorney for the UWMS, told ZBA members that he could understand keeping open the hearing on the special permit, but to leave open the public hearing on the FEIS as well—especially that it was not a mandatory hearing—he would consider “undue and unnecessary delay, not consistent with the statue and regulations.”  It might cause him, he said, to file a formal protest.  He suggested leaving another ten days’ time for written comment on the FEIS, but closing it. 

“I’ve heard some very important information from experts tonight,” said ZBA member Gerry Golub, who was inclined to keep both hearings open, to get the benefit of the expertise of some residents who might not have been able to attend.

“If it were any other season but summer,” said ZBA member Tony Giardina, “I would say definitely close [the hearing on the FEIS], but for those who may be on extended vacation, I wouldn’t want to cut them out.” 

The ZBA voted to continue the hearing to September 24, [see CORRECTION] its customary last-Wednesday-of-the-month meeting time. [CORRECTION:  The September 24 date is my error.  The town calendar lists the next Zoning Board meeting as Monday, September 22, 2014, 7:15 p.m.]

The public hearing on the UWMS application to construct a mosque begins at the 1-hour, 47-minute mark and runs around three hours.

Town of New Castle Zoning Board Meeting 7/30/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

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