McCarthy: Mosque came to Norwalk Zoning Commission fully realized

Seyal Kadri
Seyal Kadri, second from left, stands in the back of the City Hall community room Tuesday, listening to speakers addressing the Common Council. Kadri said he has been in Norwalk for 40 years and attended school here.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s not as if members of the Al Madany Islamic Center went into the Fillow Street neighborhood with the intention to build an over-sized mosque, according to the account given Tuesday.

The account prompted Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) to realize something about the process that led to a “scary” “boom, here’s our application” approach to the Zoning Commission, McCarthy said.

“When we purchased this property we intended of course to build a mosque, but we asked the city how large a structure it was we were allowed to put on this property,” Suhail Kadri said at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. “We designed, over two years to three years, designing, refining, adjusting this with the zoning staff. This is not something we decided, ‘Hey we’re going to put the biggest thing we could on this property.’”

“I realized what had happened,” McCarthy said. “Staff would probably never suggest to them that they do something small.”

Staff members are trained professionals, said McCarthy, a former zoning commissioner. Suggesting a smaller mosque “would have been opening them to potential issues, legal problems down the road, so they probably told them something that they wouldn’t have said the commission would have passed, they would have said ‘you can submit this.’ Because that’s what people are missing in the discussion about the special permit. The special permit is actually an elegant solution.”

McCarthy asserted that the proposed mosque, as defined in the proposed settlement of the lawsuit filed by Al Madany against Norwalk, does not meet the zoning regulations, in contrast to comments made repeatedly by Attorney John Fallon in 2012 and in contrast to comments made to Nancy On Norwalk by several knowledgeable people.

“It’s not true, there are things that are permissible to be put into a special permit and the commission has the right to review, and to suggest changes and to do many things,” McCarthy said. “That can be an iterative process to work to a solution or not.”

An iterative process involves repeated rounds of analysis, according to BusinessDictionary.com. Al Madany Islamic Center was seeking a special permit to allow a house of worship at 127 Fillow St.

“What happened in this case, they talked to staff,” McCarthy said. “Staff, I agree, probably didn’t limit them and made them think that they were going to get something through the commission that the commission never did. I remember when I was on zoning when this first, first, first came out and it was not an iterative process. It was ‘boom, here’s our application’ and everybody was scared, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

McCarthy was not on the Zoning Commission when the first application was made.

That application was withdrawn. Former Zoning Commission Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said that was “because their traffic study was incomplete. And there was some issues about what the gym/large room was for. They filed again after I was off.” Minutes of the April 4, 2012 say that the application was withdrawn because of the proposed location of the driveway. McCarthy called that location “badly placed.”

McCarthy compared that experience to the approval of the Waypointe project, also when he was on the Zoning Commission. Waypointe developers came in frequently to discuss their ideas, “like every meeting for six months,” he said.

“It went back and forth and people really had constructive suggestions, and you know what? When they came in for the final hearing, everybody listened,” and the proposal passed, he said.

“Everyone through that participation had bought into that solution and it passed. This application, during my time on the zoning thing, it was like ‘bang’ in front of us, this is what we want. There may be very good reasons why they did that, but it was similar to the application that was denied, but an even more badly placed driveway, as I recall,” McCarthy said.

“When I was on zoning, we often saw pre-application presentations in committee,” Lightfield said in an email. “If any subsequent chair chose not to follow that process, that is their prerogative. However, I believe Dave McCarthy should perhaps raise the issue with Joe Santo as to why the rest of the commission was kept in the dark about ongoing applications.”

Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene declined to comment Thursday night.

“I can’t comment on what someone said at a hearing because I wasn’t there to hear what they said,” Greene said.

Clarification, 6:17 p.m.: David McCarthy was not on the Zoning Commission when the first Al Madany application came in. Correction, Sept. 13: Suhail Kadri not Seyal Kadri. 


25 responses to “McCarthy: Mosque came to Norwalk Zoning Commission fully realized”

  1. David McCarthy

    To be clear, I have no knowledge that anyone ever told the Al-Madany Group whether they could or couldn’t come back multiple times, though I doubt Joe Santo or anyone ever told them they couldn’t. I absolutely believe that any applicant who comes and consults with the actual commission in a “trial and error” manner will have more success than someone who invests everything do or die in a completed application in which they are absolutely invested in, but in which they have no buy in from the commission.

    With respect to anyone being “kept in the dark” about anything, I can agree that is never a good thing, and the entire process the residents of this city have recently watched is appalling.

  2. rburnett

    Nice waffle McCarthy!! Comment in a story and try to back away in a blog. What a politician!!!

  3. anon

    Before the lawsuit, did the mosque leaders ever meet with the neighborhood associations or with nearby church leaders?

  4. Bill

    Sounds like the mosque should really be about 1/4 of what they are proposing or moved downtown on a larger piece of land. Build the biggest mosque in the world downtown and no one will give two hoots.

  5. Piberman

    Since the land was purchased in 2008 were there any discussions with other City officials such as the Mayor, Council members, etc. ? Or was the entire process contained within the Planning staff ? And the Zoning Commission ? Maybe the solution to avoid future imbrolglios is to encourage the Mayor and Council members to be more involved in City development projects rather than assume that City agencies function properly. That’s why we elect a Mayor – to properly oversee City government. So far the evidence points to City planning management failure and no one appears responsible. If this happened in a private firm the CEO would be held accountable. But in Norwalk “it’s always the other guy”. Shame.

  6. Galen Wells

    The Al Madany Group came to the West Norwalk Association years ago with a model of the proposed mosque. They explained the building, the parking, multipurpose room etc. There were six to eight people in the group and several well behaved children. Other neighbors came to the meeting and there was no outrage expressed about the plan. Obviously, the people at Al Madany wanted to approach the neighbors and start a dialogue. As I recall, the meeting was not well attended. It was held at the West Norwalk Meeting house where parking is very difficult. So the answer to Anon, who ever he is, is yes. The mosque leaders did make an effort to reach out to neighbors, not only before the lawsuit but before the application was filed. I think there is such a blind spot where this mosque is concerned that there is nothing they could have done to change the design and prevent this reaction.

  7. One and Done

    Sounds like an opportunity for another useless task force.

  8. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Berman, where in the city code does it give the Mayor any power over the Planning and Zoning department? Unless I have missed something, the Zoning Commission has complete authority over the Zoning department. The mayor can influence the commission through appointments to the zoning commission, but the current sitting Commission is controlled through a majority of Moccia appointees who take direction from the RTC, not the current mayor. You want to hold someone accountable? That person is Zoning Chair Joe Santo and Vice Chair Emily Wilson, period. Of course, we can all hope that Rilling will recommend cutting the Planning and Zoning’s budget in half in the 15/16 budget process to send a clear message, but at the end of the day, the republican controlled Council would probably put the money back because they have been the great defenders of our current P&Z department for the past 30 years.

  9. Jlightfield

    @piberman so you are finally admitting that our new Mayor is holding people accountable ?

  10. Piberman

    Our Mayor lost no time intervening when 3 BOE members bizarrely claimed discrimination by the BOE demanding resignation of the Chair even though the Charter gives the Mayor no powers over the BOE. The Mayor is the City’s Chief Administrator responsible fir the well functioning of City Departments. And is therefor responsible for well functioning of all City Depts. Its common practice for informal discussions to take place when construction and development projects are planned. The Mosque controversy illustrates shabby governance in Norwalk. Time for Mayor Rilling to be pro-active and make sure we have proper governance.
    That’s his job, not as chief politician. The Mosque ought to be wake up call for the Mayor. Leading from behind is unacceptable.

  11. Jlightfield

    @piberman The Mayor inherited a legal mess on many fronts and brought qualified personnel to clean things up. I too wish there was a magic wand to fix everything at once, but wishful thinking doesn’t solve problems. Rilling is building his team and restoring a higher standard of governance.

  12. It’s just laws.

    David McCarthy is not making any sense. Either the application followed the code or it didn’t, and it did according to legal experts and our own staff. The spin by some that this applicant wanted special treatment or favors is false, based on the evidence. The personal opinions of many that the mosque is just too big for the property are moot when our own code allowed it at that size with that number of parking spaces, and opinions based on knee-jerk feelings hold no weight in court. They proposed a building that the city staff helped them design according to the code, as the testimony revealed. That’s a fact. This whole episode is directly the fault of a bad zoning code that was diluted over the years in the name of property rights, by getting rid of limits on size. It is not the job of the mayor, either Mayor Moccia or Mayor Rilling, to go out and find other properties for an applicant when they already own a property and proposed an allowable use in that zone at a size that followed the code. The city never was and should never be in the real estate business finding alternate sites, just because some neighbors don’t want a particular use that is allowed by a law that protects all owners from discrimination. The city’s actions in trying to find another site that is more “appropriate” in the opinion of neighbors can than be seen as supporting discrimination, and is just wrong. The revised application for the settlement satisfied most of the conditions of the denial, was supported by the federal judge and national experts that Mayor Moccia hired, and was negotiated by Emily Wilson and Joseph Santo. Santo rightly voted for the settlement and Wilson voted against the settlement she helped negotiate at the direction of a federal judge, which calls into question her motives, bias, and integrity.

  13. One and Done

    The mayor has done nothing except organize useless task forces and hired an out of town crony for a useless marketing chief position. Moccia was going to have to replace the HR director anyway, so no big pats on the back for that please.
    One and Done.

  14. John Hamlin

    “Elegant solution” — I am not sure I am following that. (“Elegant” isn’t the word that comes to mind for what’s unfolded.) It still seems that the code is poorly written and ought to be revised to protect surrounding property owners and neighborhoods.

  15. Suzanne

    I don’t understand anything about this article. So, David McCarthy was on the Commission when the application by Al-Madany was first submitted. So, it didn’t meet initial Zoning criteria.
    The fact that Waypointe had meetings with the Commission every six months or so to ensure their approvals were met just suggests to me that unless you are on an inside track as to how to get your application approved, you’re sunk.
    Otherwise, you are left with Zoning staff who are not at all coordinated with a Commission that is supposed to be making decisions about what the Staff coordinated? What? Another reason to question the Planning and Zoning process in Norwalk and another reason to believe it is badly broken.
    Assisting in find a new and promising site that would accommodate all of what Al-Madany wants (I understand from earlier videos and articles that they had to cut out some classrooms to comply with the negotiations) while maintaining the safety and scale of the current site is not “discrimination.” It is protecting the community on both sides: the dangerous exit I just drove through today with minimal remediation planned is like planning endangerment to the Muslim community while not providing some of the elements Al-Madany really wants in their development. On the other side is the concern with this same danger as well as the outsized scale of the building to the site – so much so that what Al-Madany wants or needs is not being met. How is that discriminatory?
    The City, then is not getting into the Real Estate business. Just like they have lawyers to examine legal matters, I have already seen at least one realtor on this site offer pro bono services to find the best solution for everyone. That’s satisfying the needs of both communities on the basis of expert guidance. Now how does that add up to discrimination? It’s time to have a community solution, not a legally defined solution that satisfies no one.

  16. @Suzanne. No, David McCarthy was not on the Zoning Commission when the application was first submitted. I apologize for not having that in the article.
    He said Waypointe came to every meeting for about six months. (Not every six months.)

  17. Suzanne

    That’s ok, Nancy. I am just wondering why his opinion on this matter matters EXCEPT he does explain the process.
    The fact that Waypointe attended every meeting for six months (sorry, my mistake) makes the situation, to my mind, even worse. In other words, unless a developer (heaven forbid a small business person or home owner) attends meetings frequently enough to influence the outcome (and I believe that is what that strategy does), then the acceptance of a development will be compromised.
    That, or the developer gets really friendly with the Commission and that influences the outcome (I have seen this very thing happen with a developer, well known to not just the Commission but staff and directors of P and Z and easily obtaining permits that takes others far longer to obtain.)
    Not speculation on my part – see how long you have to wait on behalf of a single client to see the “right” people, especially in Zoning and then watch as the “club” gets invited in with a hand shake and hello and I, the representative for a single home owner is shamelessly left waiting.
    It feels like Mayberry except they would have been a whole lot nicer and respected the appointment times whether their good friend, the home developer, showed up or not. Not an isolated incident and perhaps the reason my opinions of P and Z are not all that favorable.

  18. anon

    @Galen thank you. A lightly attended presentation to West Norwalk Association years ago that created no concerns seems to indicate that the neighborhood had no issues with a mosque in their midst.

    Did Al Madany make additional outreach made to West Norwalk neighbor associations or churches before the lawsuit once they knew about all the special zoning requirements they needed, some of which would have direct impact on their neighbors and neighborhood?

  19. Suzanne

    anon – you are assuming the West Norwalk Association is in anyway relevant to the residents of West Norwalk. Hardly.

  20. anon

    @Suzanne, in my question, note the ‘s’ in the word ‘associations’. Neighbors, neighbor associations, churches, religious institutions. Was there only 1 outreach before the lawsuit, not outreaches?

  21. Aga Khan

    @anon your ignorance of the facts once again leads you to make wild assumptions. AM tried repeatedly to meet with Stonegate and Fillow Ridge before the application was filed. They were told in no uncertain terms that the Boards of those condo associations would not speak to them. The associations hired Marc Grenier who basically told AM to go **** themselves. Nevertheless AM did hold a town hall at the East Norwalk library that was well attended and several modifications were made to their plans as a result.

    @nancy wasn’t McCarthy an alternate on the zoning commission when the application was filed?

  22. It’s not as if members of the Al Madany Islamic Center went into the Fillow Street neighborhood with the intention to build an over-sized mosque, according to the account given Tuesday.”

    This defies common sense. Nobody buys a piece of land without a reasonable expectation that it will be usable for its intended purpose: in this case to build a huge building in a previously quiet neighborhood. It must always have been their leaders’ intention to get a backroom deal from the city, or failing that to libel Norwalk as a town full of bigots and sue. What other plan could be consistent with buying this property, when they assert that the allowed use of the property does not suit their needs?

  23. One and Done.

    @JeffHall. Very logical argument. Of course all logic has already left the building on this one. Only someone with zero common sense after viewing this property in person would think this size building belongs here. At least now we know where our elected officials stand on this. That will make the purging at the ballot box very easy next Fall.
    The only group who hasn’t weighed in are the [people] from the historical commission. I guess they only get involved when Republican supporters are the property owners. The building meets their criteria for review, so where is their review and blessing or rejection?

    This comment was edited to comply with our policy against name-calling.

  24. It’s just laws.

    One and Done, you keep throwing out untruths as if they are facts. Why do you do that except to purposely deceive? There is no jurisdiction of the Historic Commission in this issue. The building is not being demolished, and even if it was, the city has no regulations to protect historic properties beyond a 60 day delay to explore alternatives to demolition in a public hearing, which in most cases does not save the building.
    And Jeff Hall, the mosque follows the existing zoning code, is immediately across the street from condo buildings that are up to 15 times the size of the mosque, and it is less than half the size of St. Matthews which seats 1,079 and is in the same AAA residence zone and just across the park on a road with the same traffic counts and blind curves as Fillow. No neighbors ever objected to St.Matthews, and the city never required any traffic studies as they expanded multiple times.

  25. “It’s Just laws”: if the proposed building “follows the existing zoning code” then why seek a special permit? In fact, you knowingly bought a piece of land that can only by developed for institutional use with a special permit, didn’t you? Why bother suing the city if you didn’t need the special permit?

    (Oh, and comparing your proposed building with a house of worship that predates zoning with an entrance on a flat stretch of major road, and comparing the new building to buildings that house hundreds of people were nice touches, too. Just the sort of evasive half-truth that your proposed neighbors have come to associate with the term “Al Madany”.)

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