Mosque Protestors Have Right to Opinion, Islamic Society President Says
Ali Chaudry says traffic engineer set to be heard at Thursday's Planning Board meeting.
The next public hearing on a proposed mosque on Church Street in Liberty Corner, rescheduled to next Thursday, due to the inavailability of the Planning Board's new attorney, may begin with testimony from the traffic engineer discussing the plan for the new house of worship, the applicant says.
"We will have a traffic engineer presenting testimony and answering questions," M. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, said last week. That organization is seeking to build the 4,200-square-foot mosque in place of a four-bedroom home on four acres at 124 Church Street, across from the Liberty Corner Firehouse.
On Wednesday, Planning Board Secretary Frances Florio said another applicant, Syncarpha, is scheduled to be heard before the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge application comes up for a continued public hearing. The meeting at 1 Collyer Lane begins at 7:30 p.m.
If there is time at Thursday's meeting, Chaudry said the Islamic Society's attorney may then call up the site engineer or the project's architect to speak in public. The matter initially was scheduled for this Tuesday night, but the meeting was canceled.
Following by last January's informal presentation on plans for the mosque, followed by two official hearings before the board in August and September — each attracting a growing audience — Chaudry said the Islamic Society has drawn up an application that he said is fully conforming with the township's zoning laws.
Even at the September meeting, the board's then-attorney Stuart Koenig, who died unexpectedly since then, said the board would be required to approve an application that meets requirements in the township's zoning laws, Chaudry recalled.
But beyond that, Chaudry said he does not want to discuss further details on the application with the plans for the new mosque. "It's appropriate for us to do this before the Planning Board."
He also said that he didn't want his comments misinterpreted by some of those who have been speaking out against the mosque. He added, "They have a right to their opinions and to express them—and we respect that."
Signs bearing the message "Preserve Liberty Corner" have sprung up along Church Street, while the location of the proposed mosque has been displaying an American flag.
Chaudry, a former mayor and member of the Township Committee between 2002 and 2007, said that in his personal life and as a professor at Rutgers University, he has been dedicated to "helping people really understand what Islam really teaches and what Muslims really are."
Chaudry spoke about how he has been involved with other Islamic organizations that have held interfaith programs, including an upcoming interfaith Thanksgiving celebration in the Berkeley Heights area.
But, as far as the proposal for the mosque in Basking Ridge, Chaudry said that right now, his focus is on presenting the application.
Many questions at last meeting, including concerns about traffic, numbers of worshippers
September's meeting was close to three hours long and drew more than 120 people as the board meeting began. Residents questioned Chaudry, the evening's witness, on everything from whether women or children would be included in daily worship services, scheduled at multiple points during the day, but lightly attended except for the main Friday service, Chaudry said; and also how he came up with a figure of 150 for allowable capaity in the prayer room of the proposed new building. He said that the project's architect and engineer had been asked to design a prayer room with that capacity.
At September's meeting, Chaudry faced questions from the board and the public on the number of worshippers who ultimately would attend Friday services at a proposed mosque in Liberty Corner, a number that Chaudry repeatedly estimated at 150 after about a decade of growth.
"We are a small organization, but we do expect to have modest growth," he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday night.
Chaudry said on Tuesday that those who would be worshipping at the new mosque would be either residents who live in the area, or those who are employed close enough so they could attend services and then return to their workplace. He said attendees would include doctors and engineers and business people from nearby.
Although he said he couldn't estimate the numbers of Muslims living in this area of New Jersey, he did say, "The need has arisen for us to have a place where people can go and pray."
As at the meeting, Chaudry also said that Muslims have other choices of places where they can attend — ten within about 32 miles of the proposed mosque site in the Liberty Corner section of Bernards Township. Other smaller meeting places also hold services, he added.
Upon questioning in September, Chaudry said that if the numbers of worshippers at the mosque grew larger, the proposed mosque at 124 Church St. could conceivably consider adding a second service for the mosque's the Friday afternoon worship, which he said is the most attended service in the week.
Chaudry added the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge might "reassess" whether it would seek further capacity if the regular attendance ever exceeded that number.
Rob Simon, an attorney for a residents' group, asked whether the planned 50 parking spaces on the property, about four acres, would be sufficient for 150 worshippers if most of those attending would likely be men who might be driving to the site on their own.
Chaudry said some of those attending could be expected to carpool — and that the 50 parking spaces would meet zoning requirements for proposed attendance.
The application before the planning board calls for the demolition of an existing home on the lot near the corner with Somerville Road. That structure would be replaced with a building that Chaudry said will be designed by local architect Dan Lincoln to fit in with the style of historic Liberty Corner Village.
During the meeting in September, Vincent Bisogno, attorney for the Islamic Society, told the public that a house of worship is permitted within a residential zone, according to municipal zoning ordinances already approved by the Township Committee. Bisogno said the mosque should be treated the same as if it were any other house of worship within the township, including the nearby Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church.
The Planning Board's own attorney, Stuart Koenig, said in September that the board must approve the application if it is determined to be in compliance with local zoning ordinances. That would be the case even if the proposed use might not be consistent with the municipal Master Plan, which calls for the preservation of the historic village, Koenig said. Since Koenig's death later in September, he has been replaced by attorney Jonathan Drill.