BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Another joint meeting of the Bernards Township Committee and the Bernards Planning Board has been scheduled to discuss lawsuits filed after the township Planning Board's rejection of plans for a mosque in Liberty Corner. The meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 23, less than two weeks after the same township officials failed to reach an agreement on whether to settle the lawsuits with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the federal Department of Justice, which allege that religious discrimination was the basis for the denial.
Tuesday's meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the main meeting room at the Bernards Township Municipal Building, 1 Collyer Lane, Basking Ridge.
The Township Committee and Planning Board are scheduled to open the joint meeting, and then - as they had on May 10 - to adjourn into a closed-door legal discussion regarding the pending lawsuits and the insurance company handling the case for the township.
Formal action may be taken afterwards
Formal action may be taken after the board returns to public session, according to a notice sent out by the clerk's office on Friday afternoon.
Impassioned pleas for and against mosque approval at last meeting
After a 90-minute closed-door session, officials emerged with Mayor Carolyn Gaziano briefly stating that, "We have not reached an agreement with either the ISBR and Mohammad Ali Chaudry or the DOJ at this time."
The mayor added, "Settlement negotiations are ongoing, so we will not be answering any questions."
However, the mayor did allow the public to speak regarding the case after the meeting reopened, and a standing-room only crowd filled the meeting room.
Although the ISBR's president, Ali Chaudry - as well as an attorney for the ISBR contacted the next day - declined to comment, other members of the local Muslim community spoke up on what they said was their own behalf, expressing the hope that their children could worship and find acceptance in their own community.
Some of those speakers said they did not believe the proposed 4,250-square-foot mosque would add considerably to the traffic on Church Street, addressing one of the major stated concerns of other residents. The mosque would not generate the same amount of traffic as Liberty Corner School, also located on Church Street, noted Bassma Elshemmy of Basking Ridge.
Multiple residents who oppose the exact location where the mosque was planned cited the proximity of the proposed public building to the Liberty Corner Firehouse, which must be able to quickly exit onto Church Street to answer emergency calls, as well as the property's location near the four-way intersection at Somerville Road and Liberty Corner Road, already the scene of multiple accidents.
"This is about one thing and one thing only - it's a bad location," said resident Paul Zubulake. He asked why a more appropriate location could not be found in the community.
Residents also spoke about the impact of placing a public building on slightly more than four acres in a residential zone, surrounded by two houses and other residential building lots where owners complained the mosque, if built, would generate noise and lights from crowds.
Lifelong Basking Ridge resident James Rickey offered another perspective when he observed that Liberty Corner is already no longer the rural village it was when he was born in 1947.
"I agree the location in Basking Ridge might not be great - but people don't have to be hostile," Rickey said.
"It would be much nicer if we could find a better place, but we have to cooperate," Rickey said during public comments.
Parag Dhagat, another resident, also addressed both sides, when he said appreciates what Chaudry's role has been in his life. "I do want him to have a mosque," he said of the ISBR president. However, he said he also does not feel the lot on Church Street is the best location. He also spoke of the need for those in the neighborhood to have "peace of mind."
Other residents said they had felt harassed by subpoenas served by attorneys in the ISBR's case on residents who had spoken in opposition to the proposal during about three years of Planning Board hearings.
The regular Township Committee meeting is also scheduled for Tuesday night.