BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Now that months of public comment on a proposal to build a mosque at 124 Church St. have ended, the township Planning Board is scheduled on Tuesday night to hear a final argument from an attorney hired by opposing residents, as well as summation from the attorney for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.
The board's final hearing open to public comment was held Sept. 16. That night, the board set a schedule to hold attorney summations on Nov. 3, followed by a meeting date of Dec. 8 for board deliberations on more than three years of testimony.
Deliberations are set to be followed by a vote on whether to approve the application for approval of a 4,250-square-foot mosque on the main street running through Liberty Corner village.
Mayor John Malay, who sits as a member of the Planning Board, said the board is aiming to wrap up hearings on the application -- filed in 2012 -- by the end of this year.
Tuesday's meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Bernards Township town hall at 1 Collyer Lane in Basking Ridge.
Following about three years of testimony by experts representing the mosque and the township, the public comment sessions began on March 17. At Planning Board meetings between March and September, dozens of residents spoke out against the location of a mosque in a residential neighborhood, a permitted use at the time the application was filed.
Meanwhile a lesser number, including some residents and well as those who said the mosque would be an asset to the township. Other supporters from nearby towns, and throughout the state, spoke of the ISBR's contributions to the community, and the need for a mosque where members can meet. The ISBR currently holds services at the Bernards Township Community Center.
Speakers at the final public public session raised what they consider reasons for the board to reject the proposal, as well as disputing the Planning Board's previous decisions to cede jurisdiction on certain topics to the Somerset County Planning Board and Bernards Township Sewerage Authority. Members of the public were told that comments on those subjects could not be considered by the township board during its deliberations on the application.
Michael Macchiarola, who is a Liberty Corner resident and attorney, managed to persuade the board to reopen the topic of whether the mosque's impact on Church Street, a county road, was fair game for public comment. He produced a tape recording with comments from the board's attorney and chairman saying he could bring up the subject during public comment.
Macchiarola said it was "stunning" that the board had made its ruling on Church Street without the township having received any assurance that the Somerset County Planning Board would consider the issue of the impact of traffic from the mosque on the county road.
A primary concern raised by residents has been whether the mosque, with the plan now calling for parking for 107 vehicles, could generate traffic that could slow the response time of the nearby Liberty Corner Fire Company, which serves three-quarters of the community.
Public comment period said to be officially closed
The board's attorney, Jonathan Drill, was directed in September to respond to Macchiarelo's comments in a written memo. Afterward, ISBR attorney Robert Raymar asked the board whether the public comment session would be reopened at a future meeting, and was told by Board Chairman Jeffrey Plaza that the time period for public comment is now officially closed.
Several neighbors of the proposed mosque commented during the public comment sessions. Loretta Quick told the Planning Board that as an immediate neighbor living in a residential zone, she had always expected to live next door to a family, rather than a public building with vehicles pulling in and out for services five times each day.
Representatives for the mosque have testified that many of those services would be sparsely attended, with the main weekly service scheduled for Friday afternoons.
Quick, who lives at 114 Church St., next door to a home that is slated to be torn down on the ISBR's property at 124 Church St., was among those who testified that the many revisions in the plan have made it difficult to pin down what actually is being planned on the property. She said that plans, and revisions, have been "submitted piece by piece...[and have been] altered."
Quick also spoke about "soggy" conditions in the area, and said that her basement already is prone to flooding. "Is there any guarantee that the applicants' grading and paving of the property will not result in flooding to surrounding properties." She also said that so much impervious coverage and alterations to the landscape would have a negative impact on wildlife and the local environment.
Residents also questioned such aspects of the plan as whether the interior driveway design of the plan could safely accommodating firefighting vehicles without endangering volunteer firefighters and mosque attendees in the event of a fire, and whether the proposed buffer for the nonresidential building meet legal requirements.
During the summer, Christina Ehret of Homestead Village, speaking briefly before the board, referred to township hearings on another topic when she and others in her neighborhood had been told that Ridge High School buses could not be rerouted through municipal property because the extra traffic could slow the response time of police leaving headquarters.
Ehret asked the Planning Board to similarly consider what several speakers said is the safety issue of how traffic from the proposed mosque could slow the response time from the Liberty Corner Firehouse, on the other side of Church Street. The volunteer Liberty Corner Fire Co. is responsible for fire safety for about three-quarters of the township.
Township resident Zhen Zhang asked the supporters of the proposal who live in Basking Ridge if they would exchange properties with people who live next to the planned mosque. "Would you like to trade your house with...one next to 124 Church Street?"
Kathleen Hotherfall, who said her family has lived in the township for 51 years, and said that she herself is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, issued a reminder that the nation was founded on a principal of freedom of workship. "In my opinion, a mosque would be an asset, not a liability, to this community," Hotherfall said before the public and board last summer.