BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ - The opportunity for members of the public to offer their opinion on a proposal for a 4,250-square-foot mosque in Liberty Corner Village - with certain topics off limits - is scheduled to continue at a hearing before the Bernards Township Planning Board next Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The final session that as of now scheduled for public comment is at the Aug. 18 meeting of the Planning Board, which later must vote whether to approve the application. Meetings are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the town hall at 1 Collyer Lane in downtown Basking Ridge.

The start of August marks the third year since the mosque application was officially filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, which has been meeting for years at the Bernards Townshp Community Center and at other temporary locations around town.

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The public was limited to asking questions of experts and witnesses for both the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the township for almost three years. The first public comment session was held at the end of the March 17 Planning Board meeting. Among the first speakers was neighbor Eileen Fitzpatrick, shown here on video. 

At the most recent board hearing, on July 21, public comments were made before the board, which must rule on the ISBR's application expressing strong opposition or, less often, support for a mosque on approximately four acres at 124 Church St., where a private home is scheduled to be demolished. 

Some speakers on that night again raised concerns about the impact of traffic on Church Street - which the board already has ruled is an issue to be decided by Somerset County since Church Street is a county road - including whether vehicles leaving and entering the mosque property could impede the response time of the nearby Liberty Corner Firehouse. The all-volunteer Liberty Corner Fire Co. serves three-quarters of the township. 

Other speakers have said that the ISBR already has been meeting regularly at the Bernards Township Community Center at 289 S. Maple Ave., and again expressed the opinion that a mosque would be a cultural asset to the community.

Some new points were raised as well on July 21.

Resident Lloyd Martinson of Carriage way said that vehicles heading to a house of worship with about 100 parking spaces would take short cuts along township roads, adding traffic on local roads.

"What about traffic on other township streets that will be passed on?" Martinson asked. "Anyone coming off 287 is going to want to find a short cut."

Planning Board President Jeffrey Plaza said that because the board isn't considering the traffic on Church Street in its deliberations, "it doesn't extend to beyond" the county road.

Martinson also said that when he himself was looking to site an office of about 20 people who were then based in Bernards Township, he selected a location on Mount Airy Road, off Route 287.

"There's been plenty of time for other sites to be looked at that would have been potentially appropriate for large organizations," Martinson told the board.

Christina Ehret of Homestead Village, speaking briefly before the board, recalled 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. 

She asked the 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.

Another Bernards Township resident, Nadim Ahmed, who said he is a practicing Muslim, said that he understands the emotions on both sides, but - referring to some online information quoted by some opponents - "Google does not make one an expert." 

He said, for example, that although there would be five religious services held daily at a mosque, his own experience has shown that most Muslims would tend to congregate at the main Friday afternoon service - as most Christians do on Sunday.

Ahmed also said the application before the board would not entail tearing down a historic home within the historic district. 

He said the opening of the first mosque in Basking Ridge would become a historic event - just as was the opening of the first local synagogue 25 years ago.

Ahmed asked the board to continue to make decisions within the scope of its jurisdiction, and based on applicable zoning ordinances.

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."

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?" she asked.

During testimony, witnesses and the attorney for the proposed mosque have stressed that a house of worship was a permitted use in a residential zone at the time the application was filed.

However, resident Frank Zhao told the board, the proposed mosque, if built, "will have more use than some businesses in commercial zoning areas."

Zhao told the board that he himself had observed about 60 vehicles, including vans and SUVs, being driven into the community center for Friday services.

"Most drove safely - but some rushed into the parking lot with unsafe speeding," he testified. Zhao said commercial zones are kept separate from residential areas because, "People in commercial areas rush in and rush out."