Estimates for Mosque Worshippers Questioned
Attorneys for both Bernards Planning Board and Islamic Society advise houses of worship are permitted in residential zone.
Members of the public and the Bernards Planning Board tried on Tuesday to pin down Islamic Society President Ali Chaudry 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 even after about a decade of growth.
Upon questioning, Chaudry said that if the number 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 also said that the proposed 4,200-square-foot new building is expected meet the projected needs of the mosque to serve Muslims who live and work within the Somerset Hills and adjoining areas, including suburban towns in Union County. Chaudry added the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge might "reassess" whether it would seek further capacity if the regular attendance ever exceeded that number.
Tuesday's hearing, close to three hours long, 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.
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.
Either Lincoln or the project's engineer, Adnan Kahn, could testify before the Planning Board at the next scheduled hearing at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, said attorney Vincent Bisogno, who represents the Islamic Society.
During Tuesday's public session — a continuation of the formal hearing on the application that began last month — Bisogno reminded 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 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, he said.
"If they are in compliance with the zoning ordinance, but not the Master Plan, [the application] would be approved," Koenig said. He said the board would not legally be permitted to deny such an application on the basis of such concerns as traffic that might be generated by the mosque.
However, Koenig added that the planners could place some reasonable conditions on the proposal.
Following a discussion about whether the mosque, if it is built, might in the future arrange for off-site parking, Bisogno said he would later consult with his client about whether the mosque might limit such parking. He initially noted that the Presbyterian Church on Sunday has congregants parking at a number of nearby commercial lots.
Ultimately, Bisogno said, "The size of the congregation is not relevant. We want people to come to us."
But Chaudry testified that he expects that growth within the Islamic Society's membership and attendance for workship services — now held at the township's community center — would be limited for a number of reasons. For example, he said that there are 10 other Islamic centers also existing within a 25-mile radius of the proposed new location, including multiple locations in Somerset County and three in Plainfield alone in Union County.
Population within Basking Ridge is stabilized since most of the township already is "built out," he said.
Nevertheless, Board Member Ann Parsekian said that the ethnic and religious backgrounds of those within the Somerset Hills could continue to be transformed in years to come.
At the beginning of the meeting, Chaudry had said that the number of Somerset County residents identified as being "adherents" to Islam had grown from 1,891 in the 2000 census to almost 3,300 in the 2010 census.
During a break, Chaudry said the growth in the Muslim population was the reason that the need had developed for a place for those residents to worship close to their homes or jobs. He said that currently the center has about 55 members, and 65 worshippers at Friday services at the community center. He said some of those attending services are from nearby companies, including Verizon Wireless in Basking Ridge.
"This is happening everywhere," he said. "The number of mosques are growing." Islamic services are being held within rented facilities elsewhere in Somerset County, including Somerville, Hillsborough and Bridgewater, he said.
Others, however, said that they believe a Basking Ridge mosque would draw greater numbers if that center actually has its own building.
Meanwhile, resident Tom DeFeo was among those who said that continuing services at the center, which also has a Sunday school for about 25 children, accoridng to Chaudry, would create more traffic on what already is a busy street.
DeFeo expressed scepticism that carpooling would have a significant impact on the number of cars generated by the proposed mosque, particularly on Friday afternoons. "It's the nature of people in this area — we don't carpool," he said.
During the break, neighbor Paul Zubulake said he feels Chaudry already had damaged his credibility by making such claims as testifying before the board in an informal hearing last January that the Islamic Society would renovate the existing home on the property. The society already owns the property.
"It's a horrible location," he said. He added that he already has had five cars pull into his driveway, asking for directions to the mosque even before it is built. He said a mosque definitely would impact local traffic, and Church Street already has a problem with speeding vehicles.
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