Expert for Citizens Group Critiques Mosque Plan's Impact on Neighbors

June 16, 2014 at 12:07 AM

BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ - The balance of the rights of a residential neighborhood versus a house of worship - specifically, a 4,250-square-foot mosque to serve the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge that is proposed for Liberty Corner Village - again bumped up against each other last Thursday night when Planning Board hearings continued on a project proposed in 2012.

Peter Steck, a Maplewood-based professional planner hired on behalf of a citizens' group, Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, questioned details of the mosque development plan _ which he said tries to fit too much onto the 4.3-acre property at 124 Church St. _ in a meeting that lasted almost four hours on June 12.

Future hearings before the board are scheduled for June 25 and July 8.

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Steck told the board that a driveway for the new building, which he said would begin serving far more traffic than a regular home as worshippers and other members of the public pull in and out, and also a detention basin that is part of a stormwater drainage plan would fall within a 50-foot buffer zone designed to protect the neighboring home. He also said the plan fails to shield some parking spots from the residence, although the attorney for the mosque said that fewer trees will be removed than is actually shown on the submitted proposal.

Also taking into account some wet areas on the lot, Steck said in his opinion, "The site is too tight." He added, "To a certain degree this is the old [attempt at] fitting 10 pounds into the five-pound sack."

The application, informally presented to the Planning Board early in 2012, is seeking board approval for plans to tear down a vacant existing house on Church Street and to replace it with a mosque that ISBR representatives said would fit in with the character of the neighborhood. Added parking and other features needed to serve a public building are part of the plan.

Steck's critique questioned whether the plan, revised several times, actually meets towns zoning requirements and complies with best planning practices and other governmental regulations was presented before he faced questions from attorney Robert Raymar, representing the ISBR, and the township Planning Board's members and professionals.

The public also posed questions to Steck, and in some cases asked for details to further support his testimony after a prolonged give-and-take with Raymar.

Raymar asked whether Steck, accompanied by attorney Rob Simon, also representing a group of residents, was aware that the Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge and B'Nai Israel both also had driveways that are within 50 feet of their neighbors. He added that Millington Baptist Church, also within Bernards Township, has a detention basin within 35 feet of the next-door property. He said township Planning Boards had approved all of those plans in previous years.

Raymar then asked whether different standards can be applied to a mosque, a theme he has brought up multiple times during the hearing.

The debate led into a detailed discussion of whether a professional representing a citizens group should be required to be familiar with, and accept on face value, information about plans approved years beforehand. Steck argued that each application before the board should be considered on its own merits.

Raymar's contention that approvals given to similar plans in the past can be considered as setting precedents for the current proposal eventually drew general agreement from the board.

During questioning by the public that followed that discussion, resident Lori Caratzola asked whether the approvals for the other houses of worship really were comparable.

"They are on different roadways, and not across from a firehouse," she noted. She said the properties with temples or church were on more major thoroughfares, on larger properties and near major highway intersections.

The board cut off questioning by another resident regarding township jursidiction over Church Street, a county road, because Planning Board Chairman Jeffrey Plaza said that issue already had been resolved.

Plaza later added during a break in the hearing that during a previous appearance Steck failed to convince the board that a house of worship is only a conditional use in a residential zone.

In his most recent appearance, Steck several times stated his opinion that a zoning variance should be required for placing the detention basin within the property that is supposed to be set aside as a buffer with the home next door.

Raymar said the ISBR's plan is contingent upon receiving approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection for approval, and asked whether Steck would agree that the DEP has jurisdiction over environmental permits.

When Steck agreed, Raymar said that answer ended his questioning on the subject.

Several times on June 12, Steck said that it is difficult for anyone interested in the project to find definitive plans all in one place. Because of series of revisions, including those recommended by board consultants, he said some of the plans fail to show updates on all aspects of the mosque plan, including landscaping.

Without one document that coordinates all the most recent changes to the plan, "I think the process has been considerably muddied at this point," Steck told the board.

Following the meeting, Simon said he is in contact with two or three trustees of the citizens group. Sixty or more members of the public attended the June 12 hearing.



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