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Friday, January 16, 2015

New Mosque approved for South Avenue

A good resource that would help head off cringe-worthy questions
at land-use board meetings.
Plainfield's Planning Board on Thursday evening unanimously approved -- with conditions -- the application of Al Bazeera International Institute to convert a former daycare center on South Avenue into a mosque.

The building is between the White Tower location and the former Larry's Deli, which now houses a daycare center.

The group's president, Zahid Rashid, told the board it is a small, independent startup organization and that he had been seeking a location and came upon the Plainfield site, which was available. The group is under contract to purchase the building in the commercially-zoned area.

A longish discussion of reconfiguring the parking on the property took up most of the time devoted to the application. There will be a total of twelve (as I count them) spaces -- including one handicapped space that will "eat up" another parking slot in the current configuration, which does not meet ADA requirements). Revamped exterior lighting was also discussed, and the applicant was advised they will have to conform to Shade Tree Commission requirements for street trees in the front, as well as seeking approval for signage.

I had been interested in this matter in particular because of other similar situations in central New Jersey -- namely Bridgewater and now in Sayreville.

In a long-running case, a mosque wishing to locate in Bridgewater Township, was given the run-around by the township's Planning Board, which made changes to zoning regulations to exclude the mosque after an Internet hate campaign (see a sample here).

The Al Falah mosque, represented by New York University's prestigious Brennan Law Center (and others), sued the township. Bridgewater finally agreed to pay the mosque $5 million for damages, costs and attorney fees, while the mosque agreed to a land swap (see Brennan case file here). The whole affair was sordid and ugly and reminded me of Plainfield in the time when we had neighborhoods restricted to Blacks, Jews and Italians and restrictive covenants to enforce the segregation.

Meanwhile, a Hindu temple is suing Sayreville, claiming that it has been discriminated against and dragging Assemblyman John Wisniewski into the fray (see Sergio Bichao's Courier story here). If the temple's allegations are true, it is an ugly scene in Sayreville, too.

While I was prepared to pat Plainfield on the back for our tolerance of diversity last night, I was caught short by some of the cringe-worthy questions and statements made by some board members.

Mr. Rashid did seem a little surprised at the line of questions about membership and attendance. This is germane however because there is a correlation between attendees and parking provisions. But he seemed a little stumped at first, saying that there were about five families. When pressed about how many attendees that would mean, the conversation finally got to the acknowledgment that the parking configuration allows for a maximum number of about 52 and Mr. Rashid said that would be the upper limit.

What surprised me was that one board member asked if their would be chairs or pews. On the one hand, it doesn't seem to me to be germane to the board's purview.

On the other hand, it suggests that board members need to get out a bit more and see how differently groups can worship. (I wondered if the board was cognizant that men and women are segregated, as in many Jewish and Amish congregations; or that it is customary to remove one's shoes upon entering the mosque. Thankfully, no one asked).

The other surprise was a board member's comment that while approving the application conformed to the "reality" of the situation, it "goes against the vision for the area".

While that statement may be true about the Planning Board's (and the neighborhood's) vision of the South Avenue corridor, the law is quite explicit.

One of the legacies of the George W. Bush presidency is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 which provides that land use bodies may not impose a "substantial burden" on a person or group seeking to practice their religion.

Notwithstanding its lapses in taste, I hope the Board and the community will join in welcoming the new house of worship.

RECOMMENDED READING: Planning Board members (and others) would find How To Be A Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook a useful read. Organized by religious groups, it discusses how groups worship and the etiquette of being 'a perfect stranger' when visiting (see Amazon listing here); the book is now considered a standard reference.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

Great! Just what we needed for our property values. I love the liberal tolerance point of view of the post. It's a shame Muslims don't have the same tolerance. I guess you missed the memo about how Muslims want all homosexuals dead.