BERNARDS TWP., NJ - A public hearing has tentatively been set for Aug. 8 at the Ridge High School Performing Arts Center to discuss the township's legal agreement with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) and US Department of Justice to modify site plan requirements to facilitate the construction of a mosque in Liberty Corner.
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, with the full details yet to be confirmed. 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, 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.
Additional legal fees approved to seek repayment through insurance companies
The issue of the future hearing came up at Tuesday's Township Committee meeting, when the committee approved $15,000 more for Special Counsel Michael Faul Jr. and the firm of Herold Law to continue negotiating for additional repayment of legal funds through a joint insurance pool covering the municipality.
The 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 the meeting.
The insurance also covered much of the cost of the township's representation as well, but there has been no repayment so far for fees charged by Township Attorney John Belardo ($93,829), Planning Board Attorney Jonathan Drill ($24,990) or representation by Faul as negotiator, McArthur added on Thursday in response to an email inquiry.