Norwalk Zoning commissioners look back, disagree about first Al Madany application

Adam Blank and Jackie Lightfield chat with a friend at the recent NancyOnNorwalk fundraiser.
Adam Blank and Jackie Lightfield chat with a friend at the recent NancyOnNorwalk fundraiser.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk zoning commissioners past and present who were involved when the original application came in to build a mosque at 127 Fillow St. disagree on whether anything could have been done to prevent the ensuing debacle.

“Putting Joe Santo on zoning in 2010 was a $2 million mistake,” former Zoning Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said, citing Santo’s appointment to replace her when her term was up in 2010 and the cost to Norwalk of the lawsuit filed by the Al Madany Islamic Center after its application was turned down.

“I don’t agree,” said Adam Blank, who also said that an account recently given by a member of Al Madany alleging that city staff never told them the proposal was inappropriate was incorrect.

“The first time the mosque application came in February or March of 2010, they withdrew the application because zoning staff and the commission had issues with the application,” Lightfield said. “Immediately after, the Zoning Commission discussed the fact that educational and religious uses in residential zones were allowed, but the last time the definitions for what those uses were written was in the ’70’s when educational and religious uses were periodic uses in a residential zones.”

Churches and educational institutions should be on commercial property because times have changed, she said. Churches aren’t “one day a week” facilities anymore, as they used to be. They should be in industrial and commercial zones, she said.

“They more resemble a commercial entity, so therefore they should be allowed in neighborhood business zones, not triple A residential zones,” Lightfield said. “That’s worth a discussion. Doesn’t mean that the Zoning Commission should change the regulation, but it was worth a discussion, that the Zoning Commission should have looked at it and should have dealt with it after the mosque and after educational facilities came through and brought those issues to bear.”

She said that, knowing that she would not be reappointed to the Zoning Commission when her term expired in June 2010, she tried very hard to get the regulations changed. She failed, and when she was replaced by Santo the ball got dropped, she said.

“The opportunities to do the right things were missed because the opportunity to do the wrong thing was too tempting for people,” Lightfield said.

Santo did not reply to a request for comment.

“I can’t comment on Jackie’s laying a $2 million bill on Joe Santo, except to say that is her view,” Bob Keyes said in an email. “What I can confirm is that she definitely was pushing for a rethinking of the provision that allows houses of worship in AAA residential zones. Her thinking was that churches are no longer what they were – a Sunday-only proposition. Now they are a combination of school/church/community center. That is definitely what she was saying in 2010, after the first mosque application was turned down. My concern was that changing the rules at that point would be seen as ex post facto, and challenged on that basis. Still, we’d be no worse off and probably better off if we’d listened to her suggestion three years ago.”

Mike Mushak said he agreed with Lightfield’s assessment.

“I will cut Joe Santo a break, for being the only Republican who voted for the original settlement in early September, providing the pivotal swing vote along with the Democrats that kicked the settlement up to the Common Council where it was renegotiated to another location,” Mushak said.

He went on to explain “the specifics of the deficiencies in our code that contributed to the mosque issue.”

“We have no FAR (floor area ratio) limits in residence zones, which is very unusual,” Mushak wrote in an email. “Stamford has a strict limit of FAR in their Special Permit rules. Norwalk has none. Even if other codes don’t specifically mention FAR to limit size of buildings, in essence that is exactly what they are doing with stricter lot coverage and setback limits. In the R1-A zone in Stamford, which is the equivalent of our AAA zone (roughly 1 acre minimum), the maximum lot coverage is 15 percent.  In Norwalk it is 25 percent. In Stamford, the rear setback for a one-acre lot is 60 feet.  In Norwalk, it is 30 feet. As you can see, the mosque could not have been proposed in Stamford on the same size lot as in Norwalk based on their code that is 30 to 50 percent stricter.

“A 27,000-square-foot single family house, same size as the original mosque proposal that was turned down, can be proposed on the mosque site right now … with no special permit required. That never could happen in Stamford, Darien, Westport, or any other town or city in Connecticut that I am aware of. Only in Norwalk can oversize structures that dwarf their neighbors be proposed in our residence zones,” Mushak said. “That issue, combined with no parking requirements for accessory structures, was the root of the problem that led to the mosque representatives selecting the Fillow Street site and being led to believe they could build their oversize mosque there.”

He continued, “I don’t think it is wise for a city to say that religious institutions do not belong in residence zones, as that is where they have traditionally been, and already exist all over Norwalk and all over the country. But setting parking requirements on accessory uses is the effective control over size that we need, as well as setting FAR limits as other cities have done.”

A member of the Al Madany Islamic Center said at a recent Common Council meeting that the mosque had been designed with the input of Planning and Zoning staff.

“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. “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.’”

That’s not true, Blank said.

“All during the process it was suggested that, ‘Hey guys, you’ll be doing yourselves a big favor and it would be much easier, why don’t you put in the prayer hall now, you’ll have a lot of extra parking,’” Blank said.

The commissioners, Santo included, suggested that Al Madany bring back an application that didn’t include the community center, Blank said. Santo was a “big proponent” of what Blank said has historically been the path taken by religious institutions: building a prayer hall and then expanding on it.

He agreed that Santo did not pursue the special permit changes that Lightfield was pushing, but said it didn’t matter.

For one thing, if such a change had been made after the first application was withdrawn, Al Madany would have had grounds to claim discrimination, he said.

For another, if the Zoning Commission had attempted to change the regulations, Al Madany would likely have put in a “filler application,” Blank said.

“If the other side is really serious about doing what they say they want to do, they’re not going to just let you change the regs without them refiling their application,” Blank said.

The commission would have taken two months to get to a public hearing on the proposed change, he said. Al Madany could have refiled an incomplete application and then filed whatever reports were needed as supplements, he said.

“Obviously over the history of time, could the Zoning Commission have taken a better look at where our regulations are with respect to religious facility or to my view really the accessory use structures? Yeah, we could have looked at that a lot sooner, but it didn’t happen,” Blank said. “Now, with the Department of Justice involvement, I am not sure that a regulation that puts significant restrictions on religious construction is going to fly.

“Our regulations don’t require there to be a single parking spot for accessory use buildings and that’s probably a mistake,” he said. “I think that’s something that can be fixed without being perceived as discriminatory, which it’s not. On the other hand, passing a regulation now that limits where a religious facility can be built in the city of Norwalk, severely limits it, is probably not going to fly. It’s going to set us up for another claim.”

Mushak compared the 2010 situation with his recent attempt to change the zoning in the Main Avenue area:

“A similar situation occurred after the BJ’s application was withdrawn. As a zoning commissioner appalled at what I saw was happening to Norwalk’s neighborhoods because of poor planning decisions, I pushed for a Master Plan-recommended zone change for Main Avenue to protect the 140 existing small businesses in that stretch (and the surrounding neighborhoods of Silvermine and Cranbury) from the negative effects of crushing regional traffic including major impacts on public safety and quality of life.  This is exactly what happened to West Norwalk and Brookside after the poorly planned big box explosion on Connecticut Avenue in the 1990’s.

“That much-needed and professionally recommended zone change was turned down by Republicans Emily Wilson and Linda Kruk in early 2014, after the mosque was already in litigation coincidentally, because of the concept of ‘property rights,’ saying they believed that property owners should be allowed to build anything they want at any size in that stretch (this is all on the record).

“Isn’t it ironic that the ‘property rights’ advocates, mainly Republicans, who were steadfastly against tougher zoning regulations for decades creating the most lenient and dysfunctional zoning code in the region, if not the state, were among the loudest opponents of the mosque, which was only proposed in that Fillow Street location based on the broken code that they were mostly responsible for creating? The mosque representatives were quite clear that they never would have bought the Fillow Street property if our code didn’t allow them to build the mosque to the size of the original application, which did follow our code for size, setbacks, lot coverage, and parking even though it was turned down for a special permit.  In our neighboring cities and towns of Stamford, Darien, and Westport, that size facility would have never been allowed in a AAA zone to begin with, discouraging any religious facility from buying an inappropriate site there that would end up in costly litigation as it did in Norwalk.

“I will cut Joe Santo a break, for being the only Republican who voted for the original settlement in early September, providing the pivotal swing vote along with the Democrats that kicked the settlement up to the Common Council where it was renegotiated to another relocation.  If the Republicans Emily Wilson, Linda Kruk, and Mike O’Reilly had persuaded Joe Santo to vote with them as I am sure they were hoping for, we would right now be preparing for depositions and years of litigation, $4 million in legal fees if we won and up to $15 million if we lost (as we surely would have for many reasons, mostly because of how the application was mishandled by staff).

“To add insult to injury,” he continued, “if the Republicans on the Zoning Commission had succeeded in their attempt to vote down the settlement, a mosque would most likely have appeared on that site no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, just as the national experts predicted. If that is what they call being ‘fiscally conservative’ and ‘protecting neighborhoods,’ heaven help us all.  …

“The good news is that the Republicans on the Zoning Commission have finally agreed that our zoning code needs fixing, even if it is ‘too little too late’ for Silvermine and Cranbury with their regressive Main Ave decision,” Mushak said.

James White, Andrea Light and Michael O’Reilly did not reply to a request for comment.


21 responses to “Norwalk Zoning commissioners look back, disagree about first Al Madany application”

  1. anon

    It would be very difficult to frame a zoning law that can totally protect a city against an entity intent on exploiting loopholes, especially one with legal deep pockets. Weak leadership is a problem too.

    Prior to suing the City, no mention was made of Al Madany meeting with abutting owners, why not? Or ministers/priests/rabbis of the many nearby religious institutions, why not? Al Madany met with one of many neighborhood associations with few attendees, one time, why?

  2. John Hamlin

    I think the whole mosque debacle demonstrates how poorly served Norwalk has been by the zoning approach of the commission and the department. The political parties will each blame the other, but will either of them fix the system? The focus seems to be on avoiding another mosque not on protecting property owners and neighborhoods nor on controlling development sensibly.

  3. Don’t Panic

    If the notion that any zoning change made in good faith after an application is withdrawn sets up a legal challenge continues in the mind of zoning commissioners, we will never, ever be able to fix our code.
    if a fully objective study is done observing the effects on traffic etc of ALL of the institutions in the AAA zones (a STUDY, not just counts) and zoners with a conflict recuse themselves, then the City can make an objective decision about the AAA rule without exposing it to charges of selective rule making.
    if it is done as an overall revamp of the rules that include, for example FAR rules that are objectively a trend in best practices elsewhere, it would be even stronger.
    We must operate in strength and ground or decisions in what is best for the city, not operate in fear of what might happen.

  4. Don’t Panic

    This is not going to be a popular recommendation, but everyone who was serving on ZC since the prior administration should be asked to submit their resignation.
    The Mayor can then work with the council on a roster of appointtees that are more in line with the city’s overall vision going forward.
    Anyone who is not confident that his or her resignation will be declined should really do some soul searching about whether they are really right for the job.
    At this point, with a Mayor of one party and a Common Council majority on the other, you are as insulated as you can be from partisanship in the appointments process.
    The City shouldn’t have to wait to start shaping its own future.

  5. cc-rider

    Mushak’s comments comparing Stamford and Norwalk’s floor area ratio were spot on and explains a lot. All you have to do is take a walk over in Rowayton to see evidence of this with your own eyes.

  6. Jeff

    Unfortunately, customary good neighbor practices usually taken for granted are insufficient in modern times and ordinances need to be overhauled asap to prevent this from recurring.

    Mosques are different than traditional Judeo-Christian places of worship given their 5x per day call to prayer (starting at 5am in the morning) and resulting frequency of in and out traffic. Common sense would dictate that residential areas should be excluded from any Mosque permitting given the lack of suitable acreage in the area. Residential neighborhoods should not be subjected to traffic and noise pollution during early morning and throughout the day. Strict or stricter noise ordinance needs to be factored into the code.

    I am still not able to comprehend how this particular religious group could think they would not disturb the residential neighbors’ rights to peaceful possession given the proposed site’s proximity to hundreds of residents. Try sleeping through the sound of a thunderous heard of car doors closing and car alarms setting at 5am.

  7. Peter Parker

    Mushak is right on the money here. We need someone like Mushak to run for Mayor and shake things up in this city.

  8. Lisa Thomson

    John Hamlin – I agree whole-heartedly.

  9. EDR

    There are some changes that could be made easily such as minimum lot size for a house of worship in a particular zone. That said a radical change in zoning regulations is not as easy as folks are making it out to be – it’s like tugging at a lose thread. Be careful what you ask for as the law of unintendend consequences may rule.

  10. Suzanne

    Everyone can agree with each other. Endless explanations about why the Zoning regulations need to be fixed – or not (religious institutions in AAA areas or urban/industrial); endless Monday morning quarterbacking (Joe Santo – a mistake or not?); parking for ancillary structures or not? Lots of talk but when will there be any ACTION on all of this talking? Everyone projects doom if changes are not made to the code – so let’s quit talking about it. Let’s get started and let’s finish it (by that I would mean the Zoning Commission, the entity responsible for doing so. Oh wait! There might be an argument about that too. Let’s talk about it.) If JL started and MM started to change codes that needed changing but were thwarted for whatever reasons, stop the reflection and do something.

  11. LWitherspoon

    I thought I heard several people say that zoning laws don’t matter when it comes to RLUIPA – a religious group simply has to show that a zoning commission’s denial creates a “burden” on practicing religion, and local zoning laws are more or less invalidated. True?

    1. Mark Chapman


      A lot of things were said, simplified, amplified and subjectified throughout. Zoning mattered, with some qualifications (like the mineret). In addition to the minutiae that is still being argued by everyone from lawyers to former zoning members to fast-food cooks, there are some things that happened and that have not yet been cleared for release that may well have sealed the city’s fate on this. If there is any justice, this will all come out in the wash and the public will learn the whole story. After all, when it comes to your government, you bought it and pay for it. You deserve to know what it’s doing. Here’s a link that might help: RLUIPA

  12. Piberman

    Even at this late date we still do not understand why the Mosque deliberately chose to become the first religious group in the City’s history to take the City’ zoning rejection to state and federal court amidst widespread neighborhood disapproval of their building. That litigation is apt to be long and unfavorably remembered by City residents, especially when paying the consequences.

  13. Jeff

    @Mark. Interesting comment above. It would appear there are missing pieces to the sequence of events that the public is not yet aware of. Anyone on the board want to speculate what this could be? Or, perhaps a good story to unfold from anonymous sources in the future. Stay tuned.

  14. EveT

    1. Isn’t it weird that the code requires a certain number of parking spaces for a home-based business (whether or not any customers or vendors or business associates EVER visit the location, given today’s prevalence of virtual offices and telecommuting), but there’s absolutely no parking requirement for an accessory building of what amounts to a community center?
    2. What’s the difference between church carillon bells playing hymn tunes at all hours of the day and a call to prayer at certain hours of the day? (Never mind that Al Madany agreed to have no amplified calls to prayer anyway.)
    3. Many people don’t seem to understand that discrimination in the legal sense does not have to include name calling or statements like “we reject you because of your religion.” All that has to happen for discrimination is that a certain group gets treated differently (disparate treatment) from other comparable groups.

  15. jlightfield

    Stamford zoning code does not specify FAR in residential zones: RA-RH. There are a variety of uses that are permitted by special exemption that need only comply with lot coverage, setbacks and height limits as specified in each zone.

  16. Rusty Guardrail

    Jackie Lightfield should be reinstalled as zoning chair.

  17. Scott

    Why was RLUIPA created in the first place? Can’t discrimination be proven under existing laws? Was there a specific court case the precipitated the need for this law? Or was it a weapon unknowingly snuck on the law books to render municipalities powerless? It doesn’t level the playing field as a good law should. It skews thing strongly in one direction. I’d be interested to know the genesis of RLUIPA to better know how to defend against its misuse.

  18. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Thank you. Look forward to reading the full story someday here on NoN.

  19. Mike Mushak

    Stamford absolutely does have FAR limits for special permits in residence zones. Norwalk does not. As I described in the article, Stamford also has a maximum lot coverage in their 1 acre zone of 15%, Norwalk’s is 25%. Stamford has a 60 foot rear setback in a 1 acre zone, Norwalk’s is 30 feet. These regulations effectively limit FAR as they limit the scale and footprint of the building. The mosque would not have met Stamford’s code when it was well within Norwalk’s code, which is the most generous code in the area if not the state when it comes to building size in residence zones. That is how we ended up with all those architectural obscenities in Rowayton that crowd out light and air and views of their neighbors.

  20. felix

    Job description: Looking for zoning commissioner clever enough to write code that would allow city to discriminate against a particular religious group, without exposing it to a legal challenge.

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