August 27, 2014 at 1:10 PM
BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Monday’s hearing concerning the proposed Al Falah mosque on Mountain Top Road focused on maximum occupancy in the facility — and residents questioned how those numbers relate to the parking available on the site.
The Al Falah Center put in an application for a mosque on the former Redwood Inn property on Mountain Top Road. The planning board has been holding hearings since January, with testimony from applicant experts.
The Planning Board was ordered by the courts to hear the application while litigation continues concerning a lawsuit filed by the Al Falah Center in 2011 after the township approved an ordinance prohibiting houses of worship from residential areas, including Mountain Top Road.
At Monday’s meeting, architect Ralph Finelli said the facility as a whole will be able to hold 437 people. But the prayer area will only accommodate 320 people.
Finelli said that 320 is a lower number than had previously been testified to, based on requests from the board and experts.
Finelli said a section of the multi-purpose room that was supposed to have a temporary wall to allow for the prayer area to be expanded will actually be a permanent wall instead. In this way, there could be no more than 320 people in the prayer area at any time.
“The construction code looks at seating based on chairs, but there are no chairs,” he said. “We looked at this in the most conservative way, and the dedicated aisle width reduced the number of mat spaces.”
Lloyd Tubman, attorney for the applicant, said the applicant would also be willing to make it a condition of approval that they must go before the planning board if they are interested in making that wall temporary to allow for more people to come to prayer sessions.
Tubman said they did the best they could to account for the fact that there are no chairs and benches in the prayer area, and tried to find an equivalency with the mats.
But for many residents, they were concerned that the number of parking spaces allowed on the property would not accommodate 320 people, even if some cars held families coming together.
Previous testimony indicated that there will be 170 parking spaces on the property. It was indicated that it would be 1.37 people per car, but residents said that would require more than the 170 spaces.
Some questioned whether they would change the occupancy based on the number of spaces.
But Finelli said that that is not how it works.
And, Finelli said, he could not speak to the testimony of engineer Henry Ney, who spoke about the parking at a previous meeting.
Tubman said that based on the parking allowable on the property, she had instructed Finelli to construct the permanent wall for the multi-purpose room. That was done, she said, to account for the parking.
Resident Marianne Cillo asked if there will be any control used to make sure that the building is not over-occupied, and that there are not more than 320 people in the prayer space, particularly because the building itself can hold more people.
“Are people removed?” she asked. “What stops people from being in the other rooms of the building during prayer?”
Finelli said that is based on the programs offered in the facility, and that there won’t really be anything else going on while prayer is happening.
“The prayer space is used, and during prayer, others areas are not scheduled for use,” he said. “It’s the management of the schedule for the facility.”
And although officials with Al Falah said they don’t expect a large turnout at prayer times, or that the building will fill to 320 people, residents said they wonder if those expectations will be applicable to Bridgewater itself.
Several said they would like to hear from Ney again about the parking issue, and why there are fewer spaces than could be accommodated with 320 people allowed in the building.
Finelli said he could not answer any questions concerning parking.
The hearing was carried to Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. in the municipal building. Landscape architect Brian Bosenberg is expected to return with additional changes to the landscaping, and testimony from objectors to the application is expected to begin.