City got mosque issue wrong from the outset

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To the Editor

Mayor Rilling was quoted in the NancyOnNorwalk story with reference to the Al Madany settlement as stating: “I’m proud of our City. We got it right.” Maybe, but there is still the hurdle of the Mosque presenting an acceptable plan to the zoning board when they find a new property. And, we need ask how did the City finds itself in this fix in the first place. Was it the fault of lax zoning or something else? Should “something” be fixed ? Or could have City officials done better at the outset ?

When Al Madany bought the Fillow St. property in 2008 it made known its intentions to build a mosque. But when the plans for an oversized building were submitted to the zoning board Al Madany had not followed the customary and usual procedure of meeting with neighbors and neighborhood to seek their inputs. After all no one ordinarily wants to be surprised by an unexpected adverse zoning decision. So when the oversized building was rejected Al Madany took the legal route rather than seek another property or downsize its proposal. And the rest is history.

What could have been done better? When learning of the mosque plans city officials could have become “engaged” to avoid just the imbroglio we’ve seen develop. Surely they were not surprised at the subsequent legal recourse. There is no record of city officials intervening suggesting an alternative site, property purchase and some compensation to offset the mosque’s legal/consultant fees required for zoning applications. Rather city officials chose to “fight” and hired Attorney Hamilton to contest the litigation.

As a city we did not “get it right.” Mayor Rilling’s predecessor dropped the ball here by not attempting to deal with the zoning problem at the outset. We can only now hope that Al Madany will find a suitable property in an area that will be welcomed by their neighbors. Lets hope that they ask the neighborhood before submitting the plans to the zoning board. And submit a plan in compliance with current city zoning regulations.

At day’s end city zoning regulations worked as they were intended to reject an objectionable structure. As to why Al Madany did not follow the usual procedures when filing a zoning application for a large structure and meet with their neighbors beforehand, that’s a matter of speculation.

Peter I Berman



12 responses to “City got mosque issue wrong from the outset”

  1. John Hamlin

    “City zoning regulations worked”? Really? The mosque reps met with planning and zoning department members, who guided them on how to make the mosque comply with the regs. Then the commission rejected the compliant plans and the mosque sued — and when it was clear that the city would lose the lawsuit, the Commission approved a settlement including a slightly smaller mosque, and it was only when the Council voted to pay off the mosque that the plan was scuttled — until there’s a decision to build on the next lot they buy in town. How did anything work the way it was supposed to in this case? It’s the prime example of how dysfunctional Norwalk has become on so many levels. And now the protectors of the status quo will rewrite history.

  2. Farhan Memon

    @peterberman As a board member and spokesperson for the mosque I can tell you that you’re absolutely wrong. We offered to meet with the Fillow Ridge and Stonegate condominium associations several times before we filed an application. We were told by their attorney Marc Grenier in no uncertain terms that there was no interest in having a discussion unless there was an application submitted. After we submitted the application Mr. Grenier informed us that the condominiums would address their concerns at the Zoning Commission hearings. Nevertheless we held neighborhood meetings both with the West Norwalk Association as well as a larger meeting at the East Norwalk Library through which we made several modifications to our plans.

  3. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    Most observers will agree that this whole thing has been a sorry mess.
    However it ultimately turns out, the one positive result is that the citizens of Norwalk have seen that Muslim-Americans, as is the case with most hyphenated Americans, simply want to fit in to American society in a peaceful and lawful way.
    Since that includes most of us who came after Columbus, we should all be understanding of the issues newcomers face and their sensitivities. We or our immediate ancestors all have been there at one time or other. In this case, we have not made it easy for the newest among us. How long will it be before they feel welcome in Norwalk?

  4. Screwed Taxpayer

    @Rod. So your forefathers came here and sued their neighbors? And then everyone welcomed them with open arms? Where exactly in Fantasy Land do you live?

  5. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Interesting that Stonegate’s and Fillow Ridge’s attorney is also the attorney for the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, who works for DePanfilis, the probate judge who is up for re-election…The Mosque’s big mistake was not getting one of the local “good ol’ boys” as their attorney.

  6. Mike Mushak

    John Hamlin is absolutely right. This letter contradicts what is fact, and on the record. It is remarkable he didn’t blame teachers salaries for the mosque issue, if you know his frequent writings.

    Mr. Berman is wrong, as it would have been highly inappropriate for any city official to say to this applicant early on that they shouldn’t be on this site when they owned the property already and proposed an application that met our physical zoning standards for size, lot coverage, setbacks, and parking, even with the hurdle of the second tier of scrutiny of a special permit and public hearing yet to occur.
    The fault is and always was with our zoning code, that has no limits on FAR (floor area ratio) to limit building sizes in residence zones (a rare omission for any municipality, a distinction that Norwalk should NOT be proud of and needs to change) and our lack of any parking requirements at all for accessory uses which is what allowed such a small parking requirement for such an intense use (another omission we should not be proud of and need to change).
    I always thought the use was too intense for the site under our special permit standards, and stated so on the record (NON has posted my exact words on the record in the past) before I voted on it originally in 2012 when I served on the commission. I voted against the resolution to deny only because it wasn’t the resolution we voted on in committee, but was put in our hands by the corporation counsel minutes before the meeting scheduled for our vote, with no time for the commission to review or discuss it even though it was fully our legal responsibility to do so. No land use board should ever vote to approve a resolution that was written by an outside entity and not reviewed and approved by that commission ahead of time, as they are required by law to defend that resolution later on. It’s also a basic Rules of Order requirement that any entity vote on its own resolutions. Corporation Counsel could have simply presented the resolution they drafted on their own at the previous meeting for our review, but they didn’t, and just shoved it into our hands as the final meeting started and said ignore the resolution that was already publicly noticed on the agenda and already approved by the commission. It was basically sloppy and unprofessional, and guaranteed an easy win for the applicant in any lawsuit.
    I also was shocked about a year later, in 2013, to read in the Hour that the Zoning Commission was challenging the US Constitution, which was not true as I was a sitting commissioner and we never discussed or voted on that at any time before the unilateral announcement was made by the former corporation counsel. He later acknowledged he made a mistake. I share all this now, which is all on the public record already and not classified in any way, as it reveals that potentially fatal errors of process were made in the course of this application in terms if how it was handled by staff, subjecting the commission and the city to serious liability in any court case. It is all water under the bridge now, but facts of what happened are important to reveal so we learn from it and vow never to repeat it, and as John Hamlin warns so eloquently above, so history is not rewritten by defenders of the status quo.

    Let me get back to the broken zoning code. Believe it or not, our current code would allow a 27,000 square foot single family home the same size as the mosque on this 1.5 acre Fillow Street lot, “as of right” and without a special permit or any site plan review or public hearing or scrutiny or approvals by the commission at all. That is a fact. The only difference would be the house could not have a minaret, as both minarets and church steeples are exempt from our height code for religious reasons, as they should be.
    Hearing uninformed people like Mr Berman say the mosque proposed an over-scale building on this site is frustrating, as they followed our code exactly. It was the USE that was too intense, which I always agreed with, but physically the building followed our code, for the umpteenth time so it will finally sink in. There are over-scale homes all over Rowayton that fill their lots and tower over their neighbors, blocking light and air and water views (and creating drainage nightmares as our drainage standards are obsolete also) for many of their neighbors, built under the same permissive loose zoning code (most permissive in Fairfield County if not the state) that encouraged the mosque to buy this property and led them to believe they should invest all of their time and money here.
    It is also the same broken planning process and code that allowed the dense condos to be built across the street from the mosque site decades earlier, on the same dangerous curve and narrow roads that became such an issue in this application. It was interesting to hear residents of these condo complexes complain about safety and traffic issues when their own dense complexes had similar impacts on the same neighborhood and roads when they were built in a former quiet backwoods area of single family homes. The city even changed the zones to allow the dense condos to be built. The condos were also fought by existing neighbors back then for the same reasons of traffic and safety and scale. How such huge buildings in this neighborhood ever got approved by the city is beyond me, but they are obviously now established and a vital part of the community. Perhaps they will now help to try to fix some of the problems that they brought up so passionately, such as speeding traffic, blind curves, and inadequate crosswalks, traffic calming, and footpaths, problems which existed long before the mosque was ever proposed with little apparent effort by anyone in the neighborhood or city staff to ever have them fixed.
    So, the real cause of this whole planning and zoning debacle that tore the community apart was decades of poor planning and zoning decisions as the facts and the record indicate. The mosque representatives have already stated that never would have bought the property in the first place if our code didn’t already encourage them to build to that scale and provide such inadequate parking, based on our own indisputable regulations for anyone to read online, if they actually cared about the facts here.

    Finally, to correct another one of Mr Berman’s erroneous claims, the mosque representatives have already stated above what the truth is about their attempts to contact neighbors to be a pet of the their own planning process. Mr Berman should write a letter of apology to the mosque for intentionally fabricating false accusations to rewrite history. We can surely expect more of this nonsense in the near future.
    I know my posts are sometimes excruciatingly long, but in the face of so much misinformation out there on this issue, it is important for me to try to set the record straight based on what I know of our code and the law. I am always amused by people who complain about the length of my posts but read them anyway, like someone saying they don’t like to eat a lot before devouring a huge meal. I am a glutton for facts, and I have watched this entire mosque process be driven less by facts than by emotion, as Mr Berman and others we can be sure of who will follow will now try so hard to pretend that our broken zoning code and dysfunctional planning process had nothing to with this whole sad and unnecessary debacle, when it had everything to do with it.

  7. anon

    @Mushak, most people don’t have time to wade through your postings.
    @Berman point struck a nerve, why didn’t the Al Madny people meet with their neighbors?
    @Memon what you leave out is telling.
    Did you meet with abutting owners?
    Did you meet Ministers/priests/rabbis of the many nearby religious institutions?
    You met in East Norwalk to discuss a West Norwalk building, how did you inform West Norwalk?
    You met with one of many neighborhood associations with few attendees, one time.
    Maybe next time, try harder to be a good neighbor.
    Maybe next time don’t call the city names they don’t deserve.

  8. Rod Lopez-Fabrega

    @ screwed:
    And your forefathers too, is my guess.
    I do think it’s a pity that the issue is being solved by throwing money at it. Seems to be the way we do things these days.

  9. EveT

    For those not wanting to read the entire @ Mushak post, at least this much bears repeating:
    “Believe it or not, our current code would allow a 27,000 square foot single family home the same size as the mosque on this 1.5 acre Fillow Street lot, “as of right” and without a special permit or any site plan review or public hearing or scrutiny or approvals by the commission at all.”

  10. Scott

    I’d love to have a huge house like that! Oh, wait, i don’t think i could afford the taxes.

  11. Sara Sikes

    Dear Michael,
    Once again, many thanks for explaining in clear terms a complicated story. I always find you to be the most credible source.

  12. piberman

    Mr Memon

    I appreciate your comments. Reportedly the City has not previously denied a zoning application by a religious organization. However, various “adjustments” were on occasion made to achieve an acceptable application. And the usual presumption is that zoning applicants hire experienced attorneys to secure a positive outcome by the zoning board. Customarily that involves extensive meetings with both individuals and groups in the neighborhood in an attempt to resolve issues before the public hearing. Apparently that did not happen for various reasons.and the neighborhood has raised subsequently various objections. What remains puzzling is why after the initial application was rejected the attorneys did not subsequently submit further applications in an effort to secure an approved application from the zoning board rather than commence litigation with all the implications that would follow from the first religious group to sue the City on a zoning issue.

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