BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ - The public will have a third opportunity on Tuesday night, May 19 to voice an opinion on some aspects of a proposal to build a 4,250-square-foot mosque in Liberty Corner Village that is under consideration before the Bernards Township Planning Board.
However, the public comment session will be adjourned until June after 9:30 p.m., when the board is scheduled to begin discussion the 2015 amendment to the township's "fair share" housing plan, according to the Planning Board agenda for May 19.
Most of the speakers at the second public comment session before the board on April 21 were residents who said they have been waiting for almost three years to offer an opinion on a proposal they say is too large for the 4.3-acre property off Church Street; will inappropriately place a public building in a residential neighborhood; and among concerns, could make it difficult for the Liberty Corner Fire Company to fight a fire on either the property itself or -- by creating traffic on Church Street -- to respond to emergencies elsewhere.
Following about three hours of testimony by members of the public on April 21, additional public comment sessions before the board were set for this Tuesday, and also July 21, Aug. 4, and Aug. 18. All meetings of the township board are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., and to be held at town hall at 1 Collyer Lane in downtown Basking Ridge.
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge extended the application ruling date -- long past the original required date -- through September.
The first few members of the audience were able to log an opinion on an application to establish and construct the home-sized mosque at the meeting on March 17. The meeting room at town hall was filled to capacity on both March 17 and this past Tuesday night.
Comments at both meetings were both in favor of the proposal and against -- or at least by speakers who said they feel the mosque, with more than 100 parking spaces planned, should be scaled back in size.
"I really see this as something very positive for the township," resident Nancy Campbell said on March 17. Campbell said she has lived in Bernards for 14 years, during which she said she has seen many changes. She added she is a member of the nearby Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church, located a few buildings further near the middle of town on Church Street as it runs through the historic village.
"I have lived in Liberty Corner for 28 years. This issue is not about diversity; it's not about religious freedom. It's about quality of life in part of Bernards Township," resident Tom DeFeo, who followed Campbell, said that night.
Previously, the attorney for the Planning Board, Jonathan Drill said that during public comment residents also could present sworn testimony, exhibits, witnesses, and other materials or information regarding the application.
Two subjects off limits for public comment
But the residents who had heard dozens of hours of testimony by expert witnesses, official consultants and other professionals were told at the March 17 meeting that their comments must avoid two subjects - traffic and sewers.
Planning Board officials told the public that the township's sewerage authority would handle that aspect of the application, and that Somerset County is in charge of traffic issues on Church Street, which is a county road. Any potential approvals by the board would be contingent upon further approvals from the county and municipal sewerage authority, the audience was told.
After thanking the board for putting in many long meetings on reviewing the application, Church Street resident Paul Zubulake on April 21 said he "respectfully...vehemently" disagrees with the decision not to allow comment on the impact on traffic along Church Street he said would be created by mosque, with the potential for congregants arriving and leaving for prayer services multiple times each day.
Although some speakers cast doubt on the reliability of the evidence submitted by ISBR, last month Walter Ruby, Muslim-Jewish Program Director for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, based in New York City, testified that the ISBR and its president, Ali Chaudry, have shown a deep commitment to building ties with the Jewish and Christian communities, and peoples of all faiths. Ruby said he is a Montclair resident.
Here is a video of a portion of Ruby's comments, although objections were raised that the testimony was irrelevant to the case before the Planning Board.
Neighbor Joseph Abbate, even while thanking Chaudry for taking the time to speak to his family, spoke of the negative impact he is expecting that the mosque, as proposed, would have on his property among other residential homes in the historic village of Liberty Corner. He asked the planners to "make it smaller." Here is a video of part of what he said before the board on April 21.