BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Planning Board members and Mayor Carolyn Gaziano voted for site plan approval for a proposed 4,250-square-foot mosque on Church Street in Liberty Corner Village on Tuesday at a court-mandated special hearing that was held in the aftermath of Bernards Township's legal settlement agreement with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge,

The Planning Board's approval of the revised plan - reversing an earlier denial of the ISBR's mosque application by the Planning Board in December 2015 - is subject to further approvals from the Somerset County Planning Board and from Bernards Township Sewerage Authority for a sewer line extension.

ISBR Attorney Robert Raymar said that the project is still a few months away from final approvals and the drawing up of actual construction plans. But, he said of Tuesday's approval by the Bernards Planning Board, "This obviously is a step forward."

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The 6-0 vote to approve the plan followed a brief public hearing at which former members of the Planning Board and other members of the public - including Jeffrey Plaza, who presided over the Planning Board during most of more than three years of hearings on the mosque proposal - offered critiques of the ISBR's revised site plan and the procedure, and even integrity, of Tuesday night's hearing.

A key change in the site plan for the proposed mosque was the reduction of required parking spaces from 107 to 50 on the four-plus acre lot at 124 Church St.

The settlement, approved in late May by a majority of the Bernards Township Committee and the Planning Board, required that change and also a payment of $3.25 million from Bernards Township to pay the ISBR for a combination of damages and legal costs. The settlement with the ISBR is published on the township website, Tuesday's "Whispering Woods" hearing was another outcome of the settlement.

The number of parking spaces had been set early in hearings on the mosque that began in 2012, when experts testified that attendees at worship services at the mosque were more likely to arrive alone or in pairs directly from their jobs. The rule of thumb for church parking is that an average of three attendees will arrive in each vehicle for religious services.

A federal judge ruled that some of the land use issues that were the Planning Board's basis for denial were as a result of the additional parking requirement. Lawsuits were filed by both the ISBR and US Department of Justice in federal court in 2016 alleging that the Planning Board's rejection was based on religious discrimination rather than land use laws.

At Tuesday's hearing, the revised plans submitted by the ISBR's experts showed 50 parking spaces, with 14 additional parking spots, if needed, on unpaved ground.

Gaziano, as a voting member of the Planning Board, said she believed that the Planning Board's original decision to reject the ISBR application was based on legitimate land use issues regarding a plan with 107 parking spaces. A plan with only 50 parking spaces addressed many of those issues, she said.

The three professionals that reviewed the revised site plans and documents submitted by the ISBR prior to Tuesday's hearing said they were in compliance with the settlement requirements.

But some of the speakers on Tuesday spoke against the process of the board's interpretaton of the Whispering Woods hearing.

"A Whispering Woods hearing gives residents an opportunity to comment on a settlement [proposal]," said resident Cody Smith. "You already approved a settlement," Smith told the Planning Board.

Kevin Orr, another speaker who is an attorney as well as a former Planning Board member, said he agreed with Smith.

"I believe the integrity of the process remains flawed," Orr said.

'Done Deal'

"It was a done deal before it even started," Orr said of Tuesday's hearing.

Plaza argued that the way the settlement agreement was stated, granting the lifting of personal liability for the Planning Board members as well Township Committee members who approved the settlement agreemeent, presented an inherent conflict of interest for four voting members of the Planning Board.

Raymar countered that the lawsuit only named members of the Planning Board in their professional, not personal, capacities. The township officials were not sued as individuals, he added.

Raymar also noted that the board's vote to approve the plan is subject to appeal.

[Information added] Other township residents said that some of the concerns raised during the original hearings, including a fire safety plan, a traffic flow plan for drop off of people entering the building, and stormwater management, have still not been resolved in the revised application.

Some speakers criticized the use of a fence to shield the proposed facility from a neighboring property, and said the neighbors will need to look at a 6-foot high fence.

Raymar said that the issues had been addressed in the new application documents, which had been subject to review by the township professionals. For example, he said the township fire official had reviewed the fire safety plan, and had recommended one small change, which he said was followed.

Thomas Quinn, the professional engineer for the Planning Board, noted that the township professionals had been "given a tight framework through which to review" the revised documents for the mosque projet.

Loretta Quick, the immediate neighbor of the mosque property, told the Planning Board she was afraid to say what she wanted for fear of violating the federal court order. She said the ISBR had "previously harassed and intimidated me" during the legal proceedings, and had pursued a court subpoena even seeking her personal email.

Another neighbor of project, Joseph Abbate of Somerville Road, had been a vocal critic of the project during the original hearings, but at Tuesday's hearing then asked only if street parking could be restricted near the intersection with Somerville Road. Afterward, he addressed the mosque representatives at the meeting by offering a "Welcome to the neighborhood."