Proposed Mosque's Location, Funding Questioned
Residents also concerned about anticipated number of members.
Bernards Township Planners on Tuesday heard a presentation on a proposed 4,200-square-foot mosque that would be built in place of an existing house at 124 Church St., followed by objections and questions from nearby residents.
At times, emotions ran high during the almost three-hour hearing, which was attended by about 50 people and a few Bernards Township police officers.
Ali Chaudry, a trustee and president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, had in January offered an informal overview before the Planning Board and public of then-plans to renovate a four-bedroom home on the property.
The formal application now before the board outlines a plan to demolish the older house and to replace it with a new 4,200-square-foot mosque. The new building, as presented, would include a multi-purpose room, a larger prayer room and other facilities that would allow it to serve as a house of worship, Sunday school for children and meeting place to "create bridges of understanding" with other clergy, Chaudry said.
The new design means that the application is not asking for a zoning variance for distance of the building from side-yard property boundaries, as required with the older home, said Vincent Bisogno, attorney for Chaudry.
The 4-acre property, already owned by the Islamic Society, is located in a residential neighborhood along Church Street in historic Liberty Corner requiring minimum lot sizes of at least two acres.
"Houses of worship are a permitted use in an R-2 zone and we meet all the requirements," Bisogno said. "We are not seeking any variances," he added.
Chaudry then described the center's proposed schedule of daily prayer services, to be held five times a day, that would begin about an hour before dawn and end with evening services that could be held about 9 or 9:30 p.m.
Chaudry said the most well-attended services would be from 1 to 2 p.m. on Friday, which might attract about 55 worshippers. Others likely would be sparsely attended, he said. Sunday school, to be attended by about 25 to 30 children, will be taught in late morning into early afternoon after which some children may wish to attend the Sunday afternoon service, he said.
Eventually, Chaudry said his "best guess" was that the temple eventually would have about 150 members within about 10 years, up from about 65 now.
He was asked by board professionals to investigate and report back to the board how he reach membership projections. Chaudry and professionals to testify about the proposal were given a return date before the Planning Board of Sept 4.
The Islamic Society's case being presented before the Planning Board will include an engineer, landscaper and archiect, besides Chaudry, according to comments at Tuesday night's meeting.
Board members tried to pin Chaudry down as to how many people might be expected to attend certain occasions. He said the number is expected to increase slowly. Members of the public asked whether having a new mosque would increase the membership, drawing Muslims from throughout the region.
Earlier this year, Chaudry said members of the Islamic Center rent space from the Bernards Township Community Center for worship, and also lease rooms at the Somerset Hills YMCA to operate a Sunday school.
He said the group rents outside space for larger occasions. For example, he said a celebration at the end of Ramadan is held at a hotel, and would continue to be hosted there even if the building is constructed.
The first resident to ask questions about the proposal was Joseph Abbate of Somerville Road, who noted that the applicant had spoken about economizing back in January.
"What happened in that time between January and now," Abbate asked. "I want to know how your money situation change and it will change in the future."
Later during the hearings, Chaudry said the 10 "founders," families which share the mosque's vision, each year contribute about $40,000 to the Islamic Society, with most of the money going to the building fund.
He said the organization had obtained a loan to pay for part of the property purchase, and might need to borrow more for the construction of the mosque itself.
The attorney for the Planning Board, Stuart Koenig, pointed out that while the source of the Islamic Society's funding might be "interesting," it is not relevant to the board's consideration of the application.
Barbara Berger, a Church Street resident who said she is a former realtor, asked why the mosque had been planned for a location on a two-lane road in a "quaint village" rather than along major roads, like other established mosques in the area, including those off Route 1 and near Rutgers University.
"This is where the need is," Chaudry said of a mosque he said will serve those who live and work in the Somerset Hills. He later said the founders come from Basking Ridge, Bernardsville, Bedminster, Warren and some other communities, such as Berkeley Heights and Watchung.
He also said that a mosque in Boonton, in Morris County, is on a smaller street off Main Street.
Another nearby resident, Tom Mahala, said he believes that adding a new mosque to the area would draw a regional crowd rather than just local worshippers.
Residents were advised at several times they would only be permitted to ask questions about Chaudry's testimony, and that they would need to wait until later in the hearing for a chance to offer opinions.
Some residents hired an attorney, Rob Simon of Warren, who said he was representing a non-profit organization, Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development.
Chaudry is a former mayor in the township who said he has lived in town for 35 years.