BASKING RIDGE, NJ - The Bernards Township Planning Board on Tuesday night denied approval of plans for a 4,250-square-foot mosque on a residential lot along Church Street in Liberty Corner Village, following three and a half years of crowded public hearings.

Even as the meeting was about to begin at 7:30 p.m., there was a line of people out the front door of the town hall at 1 Collyer Lane. Township police required everyone entering the meeting room to first pass through a metal detector.

About two hours of board comments preceeded the vote by board members. "The plans submitted do not include enough detail for final approval," said Board Member Kippy Piedici, a viewpoint echoed by many of her fellow board members.

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The Planning Board members present at the meeting voted unanimously, 6-0, to deny final site plan approval for the project, first submitted for approval in 2012 by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.

The board also voted 4-2 against granting preliminary site plan approval, which would have given tentative approval with further details to be provided before the project could gain final acceptance.

ISBR president 'to review this with our legal team'

"The board has made it's decision - we're going to review this with our legal team," ISBR president Ali Chaudry said following the vote to deny. He reserved the right for additional comment in the coming day or so.

The room quickly reached capacity, as was an alternate room in town hall set up for people to watch remotely. The board took a brief break before the discussion to allow even more residents to return home to watch the meeting online, or on the public access Cablevision station.

Residents applauded Board Member Barbara Kleinert's comments that the plan shouldn't even receive preliminary approval;  Kleinert said she was "not convinced that ordinances would be met" governing such issues as safety for a fire plan, creating a buffer with a neighboring property, stormwater drainage and an internal circulation plan. Concerns were expressed by other board members on those same points.

But the audience was fairly quiet following the final vote, filing out even as the board moved onto other matters.

"It's all good," said Loretta Quick, an immediate neighbor of the four-plus-acre site on which the mosque has been proposed at 124 Church Street. She added she was glad that so many people had turned out for the meeting.

Township resident Lori Caratzola, who has attended meetings since conceptual plans were presented by the ISBR almost four years ago, said she was "pleasantly surprised" by the vote.

Caratzola said she was pleased that the four board members who denied preliminary approval "considered the zoning laws [and] clearly listened to citizens' input." She added she felt those board members did not "cower" to current political pressures.

Nearby resident Michael Barth said he had expected the vote to be closer.

Barth said he thought that the numerous conditions that Board Member Mary Pavlini said she would have required of the applicant for preliminary approval - such as moving a detention basin out of a buffer zone with neighboring property, reducing maximum capacity from 142 to 112, as per an earlier version of the plan, and also reducing the number of parking spaces - would have changed the entire plan.

Pavlini was the first board member to speak, and she had a long list of conditions and revisions she said she felt should be made to the plans, which already had been revised numerous times on the recommendations of board members and township professionals.

Pavlini said she felt that the maximum capacity for worshippers, which at one point had been set at 112 based on the number of prayer rugs that would fit in the prayer hall as designed, should be returned to that number. She said she would reduce the number of required parking spaces from 107 to 83.

She also pointed out that any plans approved by the board would be subject to approvals by the township sewerage commission, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Somerset County agencies.

Kleinert said she doesn't believe it is the board's responsibility to revise the applicant's plans. However, she - and other board members - agreed with Pavlini in citing as a key concern the width of aisles in parking areas, and the driveways that would surround the proposed building. 

Board members repeatedly pointed out that fire safety standards would set the width of the driveway at a minimum of 24 feet, and the area in the parking aisles at 26 feet. The plan fell short in meeting both those requirements, according to board members.

"I don't feel comfortable with conceptually redesigning this property," agreed Board Member Jodi Alper.

Alper and other board members criticized the internal traffic plan in the drawings. Alper said a drop off plan would leave pedestrians exiting vehicles "smack in the middle of the traffic."

A proposed stormwater management plan, as well as the mosque planner's placement of a drainage basin in a buffer area that zoning laws would require to shield neighboring properties, also came in for disapproval in many of the board member's comments.

That detention basis would be almost wholly within the buffer zone, Board President Jeffrey Plaza said.

The purpose of a buffer is to screen and protect the neighboring property, Piedici said. 

The ISBR already has an area membership which has been meeting for religious services at the Bernards Township Community Center, it was pointed out during the hearings.