Government

Bernards Twp. Declines to Reach Settlement on Mosque Case at This Time; Crowd Voices Opinions to Officials [Update]

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The meeting room at the town hall in Bernards Twp. was crowded with residents waiting to hear the outcome of settlement talks on the ISBR mosque litigation. Credits: By Linda Sadlouskos
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BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Wednesday's closed-session discussion on a possible settlement with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the federal Department of Justice regarding the siting of a mosque in Liberty Corner Village led to an announcement that township officials were unable to reach an agreement, at least as of this time.

The Bernards Township Committee and township Planning Board, which met with several attorneys behind closed doors for about 90 minutes, was greeted by a crowd that filed in to fill the meeting room to hear the outcome of that discussion.

"We have not reached an agreement with either the ISBR and Mohammad Ali Chaudry or the DOJ at this time," Bernards Mayor Carolyn Gaziano said in a brief comment at the conclusion of the legal discussion.

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Settlement negotiations ongoing

"Settlement negotiations are ongoing, so we will not be answering any questions," Gaziano added.

[Updated] Soon afterward, Michael Turner, spokesman for Bernards Township, issued a brief statement confirming that no action had been taken regarding the litigation.

The statement on behalf of the township added, "As elected leaders, our goal is to promote the quiet and peaceful use of property for all members of our community. Settlement, in our opinion and that of our legal counsel, represents the most effective path forward to mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation as well as resolve the issue of the ISBR's proposed Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque in Liberty Corner.

Since the matter is not completely resolved, we must withhold any further comment."

No comment from attorney representing the ISBR

After being contacted for a comment on Thursday, Adeel A. Mangi, representing the ISBR, said in an email, "We will have no comment at this time."

Following the adjournment of the Planning Board, however, the Township Committee did open the floor to public comment and heard dozens of people speak for almost two hours.

Multiple residents speaking said they would support the location of a mosque in Basking Ridge, but said the Planning Board was correct in voting against the proposed location on a little more than four acres between two homes on Church Street in historic Liberty Corner.

Other major concerns during more than three years of Planning Board hearings, raised again on Wednesday night, included fears that traffic heading out of the mosque could impede the response time of the Liberty Corner firehouse across the street, and also would worsen an intersection at Somerville Road where many accidents have already occurred.

"No one objects to a mosque in this town; they object to the location," said Sue Patton. She said members of the ISBR should sit down with others in the township to find a better location.

Several members of the ISBR spoke, although they stressed they were speaking on their own behalf, rather than as representatives of the religious organization.

One speaker, Sinan Kutty, said there is no more idyllic of an American scene than being able to walk down the street in Liberty Corner and seeing a church, a school attended by local children and a mosque serving local worshippers. He said his own children attend Liberty Corner School.

"We hope the location works out somewhere," he said. He and other speakers said they don't think residents would see a large increase in traffic if the mosque were built, especially because the main activity at the house of worship would be 1 p.m. services on Fridays, and on Sundays. He said ISBR members have already been praying in the area without attracting attention.

[Update and correction: An earlier version of this report quoted Kutty as saying the ISBR members had been meeting for prayers on Church Street. On Saturday, Kutty said he meant the prayer meetings had been held at Dunham Park. He said he was unaware that the address for Dunham Park is at Liberty Corner and Somerville Roads, and not on Church Street, when he mentioned that location at the meeting.

The majority of speakers expressed confidence that the Planning Board's decisions were based on zoning issues rather than religious discrimination, as alleged in the lawsuits filed in 2016. On New Year's Eve in 2016, a federal judge ruled that the township could not require the mosque to provide at least double the number of parking spaces on the property than it would for a church. During the hearings, the Planning Board heard testimony that more worshippers at Friday services would be likely to arrive alone in a vehicle, heading to and from work, than would the average churchgoer attending Sunday services with an estimated three persons in each vehicle.

The judge said the decision to require extra parking created many of the other objections to the project, including complaints about adequate buffers with residential properties and other parking issues.

Other residents said on Wednesday that the mosque has yet to address the issue of traffic on Church Street, a county road.

Chaudry also declined to comment following the meeting, and the subsequent public comment period.

 

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