BERNARDS TWP., NJ - No new Bernards Planning Board members are likely to be appointed to fill the vacancies created by three resignations a few months ago until after the board's public hearing to discuss a legal settlement that will streamline the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge's construction of a mosque in Liberty Corner.
A public hearing has tentatively been set for 7 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the Ridge High School Performing Arts Center to discuss the township's legal agreement with the ISBR and U.S .Department of Justice to modify site plan requirements for a proposed 4,250-square-foot mosque on Church Street in Liberty Corner.
Bernards Mayor Carolyn Gaziano said this week 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 board has "alternate" members who can serve in the case of the absence of a permanent member, which so far has not come up short with a required number of members to hold meetings, Gaziano said. Board Member Kippy Piedici was also appointed to serve as the board's chairman following the multiple resignations.
As part of the township's legal settlement with the ISBR and Department of Justice, 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 for the 4,250-square foot 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, 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.
Plaza had just been reappointed as board chairman at the beginning of 2017. Plaza's term was due to run through the end of 2020. Axt's appointment ran through the end of 2018. Harris was due to serve on the board through the end of this year.
Plaza presided over at least part of many of the major cases heard by the board in recent years, including the plans for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge for a mosque in Liberty Corner.