BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The Planning Board is expected to vote on a revised application for a mosque in Liberty Corner at a special meeting set for 7 p.m. this Tuesday, Aug. 8, said the attorney for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, which has been seeking to build the 4,250-square-foot structure on Church Street since 2012.
However, Adeel A. Mangi, attorney for the Basking Ridge-based ISBR, said in an email last Friday that he was not in a position to answer such questions as which experts the ISBR will call to testify at the special meeting and public hearing scheduled to be held in the Ridge High School Performing Arts Center at 268 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge.
The special meeting is the result of Bernards Township's legal settlement earlier this summer with the ISBR and the US Department of Justice in which the township - along with paying $3.5 million in damages and costs - agreed to modify the township's application requirements to facilitate the construction of the mosque.
As part of the settlement, approved in late May by a majority of the Bernards Township Committee and the Planning Board, the Planning Board is required to hold a special hearing to discuss the settlement action, and also the ISBR's application for preliminary and final site plan approval of the Settlement Site Plan (the “Whispering Woods hearing”). No unrelated business will be included on the agenda for the special meeting.
Both lawsuits were filed in 2016 as a result of the Planning Board's rejection in December 2015 of plans to tear down a residential home and instead build the home-sized mosque on slightly more than four acres off Church Street.
The board and those who opposed a mosque in a residential section of the historic village asserted the decision was based on land use requirements, while the ISBR and DOJ claimed that religious discrimination was the basis for the Planning Board's rejection, particularly unprecedented parking requirements that exceeded what would have been asked in the case of a church.
The hearing, referred to in the settlement as the "Whispering Woods" hearing, based the requirements set in a previous court case, will have no time limit, according to information published as part of the settlement hearing. The settlement with the ISBR is published on the township website, and the details on the hearing requirements are under the "Whispering Woods Hearing" section.
'Interested parties' living within 200 feet to have three minutes to speak
The hearing terms require the Planning Board to provide all "interested parties" with the right, through their attorneys if represented, or directly if not represented by an attorney, to cross examine the witnesses for the ISBR and the Planning Board subject to "reasonable limitations" as to amount of time allowed for such cross examination, in accordance with state law, according to the settlement.
State law for this type of hearing identifies an “interested party” is defined as any person owning property within 200-feet of the property. Prior to being able to cross examine witnesses, all interested parties shall identify themselves and provide under oath the address of the lot(s) they own within that distance. The settlement states that all interested parties will have three minutes to ask cross examination questions per witness.
A majority of Township Committee and Planning Board members voted to accept the settlement as costs mounted for the township defense, and a key ruling came down from a federal judge saying that the township had treated the mosque application unfairly by asking for more than double the number of parking spaces that would have been required for a church. The number of parking spaces had been set early in the hearing, when experts testified that attendees at worship services at the mosque were more likely to arrive alone or in pairs directly from their jobs. The rule of thumb for church parking is that an average of three attendees will arrive in each vehicle for religious services.
Township Committeeman John Carpenter voted against the settlement. Without specifying why, three Planning Board members resigned from the board about a week or so before the settlement vote in May.
No new Bernards Planning Board members were to be appointed to fill the vacancies created by three resignations a few months ago until after the Aug. 8 hearing, Bernards Township Mayor Carolyn Gaziano said in July.
Gaziano said last month that she does not feel that it would be fair for new board members to be required to preside at that public hearing without having served on the board during any of the three-year-plus history of hearings on the ISBR's application.
She also said that she would not want new board members with no background knowledge on the application to serve at the August hearing.
On May 18, prior to the final vote on the legal settlement, Planning Board Chairman Jeffrey Plaza and two other board members, Paula Axt and Leon Harris, tendered brief resignations that did not mention the mosque.
The township's insurance coverage paid for a $3.5 million payout from the township that is part of the settlement agreement, Township Administrator Bruce McArthur said in response to a question following a Township Commitee meeting last month. The insurance also covered much, but not all, of the cost of the township's representation as well, officials said.