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Public hearing on mosque settlement begins at 7 p.m. – what’s in store

NORWALK, Conn. – More than two years of legal wrangling – and legal fees – is expected to be on the line tonight when the Norwalk Zoning Commission holds a public hearing on the settlement proposal in the Al Madany Islamic Center’s lawsuit against the city of Norwalk.

The hearing is set to 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Sept. 4) in Concert Hall at Norwalk City Hall.

At issue is Al Madany’s desire to build a 42,442-square-foot mosque and accessory building on 1.559 acres at 127 Fillow St. in West Norwalk. The Zoning Commission denied the application in 2012, citing the size of the project along with parking and traffic concerns. Al Madany then sued in June 2012 under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), claiming that the project was within zoning parameters and that the city was causing an undue burden on the practice of its religion. The law states:RLUIPA prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies or institutions absent the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”

A previous settlement agreement – worked out by an outside attorney working with the Zoning Commission led by then-Chairwoman Emily Wilson – which left the original mosque proposal intact and paid Al Madany $100,000 for its troubles, was rejected by then-Mayor Richard Moccia. The Zoning Commission had voted 6-1 to accept a settlement if an acceptable agreement could be reached.

Moccia fired the outside counsel and retained nationally renowned RLUIPA expert Marci Hamilton and the Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin to take over along with the city’s legal staff.

When Moccia lost his re-election bid, Mayor Harry Rilling directed Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola to seek a settlement after, Rilling said, the U.S. Justice Department and the judge urged the city to do so. Shipman & Goodwin partner Joseph Williams later confirmed Rilling’s version of events, and Hamilton, a foe of the law who claims it is unconstitutional despite its surviving challenges, said she always suggested seeking compromise when possible.

Starting in January, Norwalk’s legal team, in concert with Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo and Vice Chairwoman Emily Wilson, negotiated with Al Madany, with Stonegate Condominium Association at the table, to find a settlement all sides could live with. The settlement that will be presented at tonight’s public hearing is the result of those negotiations.

Rilling has called for a Common Council executive session at 6:30 p.m. Monday to discuss the settlement. The regular Council meeting is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

What follows are items of additional interest, and attached document regarding the agreement:

If the Zoning Commission approves the proposal:

The agreement would then move to the Common Council for a vote on the financial aspect of the deal, which includes a $307,500 payout to Al Madany, $145,000 of it from the city and the remainder to be paid by the city’s insurance company. The money is to cover expenses incurred in the preparation of the suit and settlement, but not lawyer fees of mosque construction costs.

There also is a payment of about $45,000 to Stonegate Condominium Association for the purchase and construction of a gate to keep mosque-goers from parking on Stonegate property. The settlement would require a simple majority vote. Council member Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), a Stonegate property owner, is expect to recuse herself. If there all other members are present and the vote is tied, Rilling could cast the tie-breaking vote.

If the Zoning Commission or Common Council rejects the settlement:

The legal teams would likely begin preparation for a trial. According to Williams, “The court ruled that, absent an extraordinary showing, it will not extend the case deadlines further. Therefore fact discovery must be completed by Oct. 21, 2014 (including all depositions of many fact witnesses).  There is not a formal deadline for settlement, but if either body rejects the settlement, I would expect the parties to need to devote their full time and energy to preparing the case for a trial in fairly short order.”

If Al Madany eventually prevails at trial:

The Islamic Center could then build the mosque as originally proposed, and Norwalk would be on the hook for Al Madany’s legal expenses, with about $10 million the oft-quoted figure (and that is just an estimate by the lawyers).

If the city wins at trial:

Norwalk’s legal costs have been estimated at about $4 million through the end of the trial.

According to Williams: “If Norwalk wins, then Al Madany certainly can submit another proposal attempting to address the Zoning Commission’s concerns, and they could choose to submit a plan like the one being discussed in settlement. I will not predict the likelihood of them winning a second challenge since it is possible that one will be brought, but if they proposed the settlement plan, it would improve their chances of winning.”

According to Hamilton: “That is assuming that they could win on the facial and as-applied constitutional challenge to RLUIPA that will likely follow if we are back in court on these matters. Norwalk raised powerful defenses from the beginning and has no need to abandon them if it finds itself in litigation again.”

Letter confirms overflow parking arrangement: United Congregational Church letter-30

Chart shows size comparisons of original and revised proposals: Settlement-comparison-chart

Architect’s notes on differences in original, revised plans: Settlement-Review-Comments

A summary of proposed settlement terms: Settlement-Terms

Comments

22 responses to “Public hearing on mosque settlement begins at 7 p.m. – what’s in store”

  1. John Hamlin

    It seems the main concern that everyone lands on is the traffic issue. Yet what are the stats on accidents/injuries/fatalities on the surrounding roads? Has the neighborhood lodged complaints about traffic with DPW and the city in the period leading up to the zoning application (or lately) or made efforts to solve their traffic problems in the past? It’s unfortunate, but the zoning regs don’t appear to protect the neighborhood or adjoining property owners from this development. So unless there’s some legitimate traffic concern (as opposed to a desperate last ditch effort with no real basis), then it’s hard to see how the zoning commission could do anything else but approve. Perhaps now there will be support for zoning changes to protect all Norwalk property owners in future.

  2. Aga Khan

    @john according to records maintained by the Norwalk Police department there have been 2 accidents reported in the last 8 years. It may be the most dangerous intersection in Norwalk but the facts do not bear that out.

  3. One and Done

    @Age of Khan. Now add in the accidents within a few hundred yards instead of cherry picking your facts. But let’s roll with your absurd point for a second. If everyone of the 50000 plus intersections of roads and driveways in the city had an accident every four years we’d be talking about 10,000 plus accidents a year. Of course that’s an absurd number, but it points out the fact that this intersection has above the normal number of accidents and is thus a dangerous one. So, thanks for proving the point.

  4. Jeff

    The proposed community center alone should be a show stopper in voting down the settlement. The size alone can mask many things. Will this serve as a gym, school, soup kitchen, banquet hall, fund raising apparatus, tri-state destination for like and kind religious seekers . . . since when did RLUIPA protect religious institutions from erecting black box buildings with purposes unknown? It is virtually impossible to predict the surge in traffic flow that will likely evolve. With a proposed structure this large, this religious group will likely be thirsty to raise funds through “major events” to cover all the construction expenses. I think should any religious structure be built here, the chapel on West Norwalk Road would be the right size in this area.

  5. Scott

    Accident reports aren’t written for close calls and near misses. As i said before, I’ve worked on this curve with work signs, cones and flagmen and still had to work with eyes in the back of my head. I predict the reported accidents to increase when the mosque is in full swing. I wonder if Al Madany is willing to accept liability for any of their members who are involved in an accident and absolve the city of all liability

  6. UN Envoy

    Jeff, and John Hamlin: Aga Khan is right. There is no accident history to speak of (debunks that claim that it is so dangerous). The official DOT traffic counts for Fillow (3,500 to 4,100 cars per day at two separate locations) is similar to many other roads in West Norwalk and all over the city, which debunks the claim made that this is “one of the busiest roads in Norwalk”. Scribner gets 3,500, Fox Run gets 3,700, West Norwalk Road gets 5,400, Richards gets 8,900, Flax Hill gets 8,700. Over in Cranbury, Grumman Hill gets 3,600, and Bayne gets 3,100. In Silvermine, Silvermine Ave gets 6,000 near 123, and 2,400 near the Merritt overpass.
    ;
    There is also no record of anyone in the area ever complaining about the traffic or conditions at that intersection. None. The city even waived a traffic study for St. Matthews (with 2,400 families as members) across the park from the mosque site (with 100 families as members) when they doubled their capacity to 1,079 and added 11,000 square feet to their community center. Not a peep about the traffic generated from St. Matthews from the city, from the neighborhood, or from the Republcan Town Committee at that time. Councilman Dave McCarthy is a member of St. Matthews, and is opposed to the mosque. His megachurch in the same AAA residence zone as the mosque site got a free pass but he is leading the charge against the mosque, that is just a fraction of the size of his church. Talk about unfair, and having different rules for different players.

  7. anon

    @Chapmans have done good in getting information to the public.

    It’s surprising to see the the City of Norwalk did not commission its own traffic study rather choosing to rely on someone else’s plan, each with their own agendas.

    This is a REGIONAL DESTINATION.

    Why call this a regional destination?

    Stamford has a population of 125,000, Norwalk 87,000.

    The Stamford mosque, with a building 8 times smaller than Norwalk’s, can service their membership of 100, Norwalk has 100 members also. It does not add up. http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Stamford-Muslims-mark-Ramadan-with-new-mosque-4653796.php

    This is a REGIONAL DESTINATION. What happens to West Norwalk, Connecticut Avenue and Route 1. Why no City traffic study.

  8. Aga Khan

    @john once again the “right size” is in the eye of the beholder but the regulations say that this configuration meets zonings requirements
    ;
    This mosque is being built for the 100 families that live in Norwalk. It is a falacious argument, one with no basis in fact, that it will attract anyone else. All religious institutions are allowed accessory spaces where congregants can assemble for education and recreation. That does not make the space into a community center.
    ;
    The plain and simple fact is that this application has met all the requirements and should be approved.

  9. Pibermanfmc

    Calling for a closed Council session just ahead of the public meeting telegraphs a full court press by Mayor Rilling to secure acceptance. The public will have a chance to vote on “backbone” a year from now.

  10. Dennis DiManis

    Were it not for the projected legal costs, no one in Norwalk would be thinking twice about taking the matter to trial.

  11. Jeff

    It’s extremely wishful thinking for hoping settling the matter will prevent other religious groups from following the same course of action. The time is here and now to let the lawsuit run its course as safety/traffic concerns are significant enough “governmental interests” to block the proposal. Further, collateral damages to property values and the city’s grand list will far outweigh legal costs. Let’s recall prior to Marci Hamilton’s endorsement of the proposed settlement, she expressed tremendous enthusiasm for Norwalk prevailing.

  12. Jeff

    Putting any predictability with traffic flow with a structure this large and a black box community center is a gamble at best, particularly around a blind curve. Norwalk does not need to gamble on the safety and welfare of its citizens. This religious group has outsized the structure for the allotted acreage and shouldn’t look to the city to bail it out by falsely accusing it of racial discrimination.

  13. Aga Khan

    @jeff so do you believe Marci before or after the settlement? Keep in mind that she has made it her life’s work to have RLUIPA ruled unconstitutional. She has lost lost lost in courts all over this country. Norwalk has funded this effort. Cash down the toilet. Why do you believe her when she is doing something you want to do and not otherwise.
    ;
    Let’s just take your statement “This religious group has outsized the structure for the allotted acreage” Outsized according to who and by what standard?

  14. One and Done

    @Age of Khan. Common sense shared by a very silent, but rapidly awakening majority should prevail and deny the permit. Only a lunatic would think this lot in this area is suitable for that size of structure. That or someone who is intent on becoming public enemy number one as far as Norwalk is concerned. Unless, of course, it is your goal to be an antagonist and create conflict where none should have existed. Seems to be a very similar pattern in all of this, but let me stay away from that line of thought before more discrimination is claimed by the self professed legal eagles.

  15. Jeff

    @Aga Khan. Please name one religious institution with this square footage on this size lot around a blind curve in a residential zone? Clearly the citizens of Norwalk are speaking loudly against this proposed structure. Are you listening? Can an ethnically diverse and accepting community be all biased against Islam? If the light is green and cars are still coming through do you cross the road? Regardless of what is there now, this will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Like I stated earlier, predicting any traffic flow with this size structure is a gamble at best and constitution challenges set aside, there is a clear governmental interest in protecting the welfare and safety of citizens. Further, we cannot simply fold and run scared by false accusations of religious discrimination.

  16. David

    @Dennis: You’re 100% correct there. So, let’s look at this rationally. The city of Norwalk is going to go to court and say…what? The intersection is dangerous? The intersection that has had 2 accidents in 8 years? We’re going to say it’s “too big” when it meets all zoning requirements? We’re going to say “it infringes on neighbors”? The neighbors right across the road have publicly stated they are good with the settlement. I can just *see* the furor on this site when the $10 million tax bill comes due for losing this case in court. Everyone on this site wants to see their tax bills come down, and this is guaranteeing a tax raise. If all of Norwalk is good with that, then fine, let’s do it, but we’re going to get steamrolled in court.

  17. LWitherspoon

    If Norwalk goes to trial and prevails, does the City’s insurance company pay the estimated $4 million in legal fees?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @LWitherspoon

      No

  18. Karen

    It bothers me that St. Matthews keeps being used to justify the size of the mosque. The two properties are completely dissimilar. First, St. Matt’s is on a straight piece of land and roadway. It has ample frontage for multiple ingress and egress outlets. There is no real danger of accidents. This property is located at center of a 3 way intersection on a winding roadway and because the property is triangular with the point fronting that intersection there is only one outlet -right into the already awkward intersection. It is a disaster waiting to happen. Comparing it to he St. Matt’s property is comparing apples to oranges.

  19. Karen

    UN Envoy I find it interesting that you have never commented on any piece of news save the mosque issue.

  20. UN Envoy

    Karen, I also find it interesting that you haven’t commented on any other news item save the mosque issue. Your facts about St. Matthews are wrong. It is not on a straight road. There is a large yellow sign right in front of St Matthews warning of the hairpin 90 degree turn that is a couple of hundred feet to the east of the driveway that blocks sight lines. Scribner has about the same 3,500 cars a day as Fillow.
    ;
    Your claim of the driveway of the mosque entering directly into the intersection is based on an early plan that was revised. The new driveway was pushed out of the intersection and located opposite the condo driveway across the street, to improve safety and sight lines. If the mosque driveway is so bad now, what about the condo driveway that serves a huge condo complex for years with no issues?
    ;
    In the hearing last night it was discussed that the city is looking at a raised intersection in front of the mosque and condo driveway which is basically a large striped speed hump. The steep hill and sharp curve nearby are being looked at for improvements by improving sight lines with trimming and regrading, and better signage. This should have been done years ago.
    ;
    It is not the mosque’s fault that the city neglected safety improvements for years at that location. What is interesting is that there are no complaints to any city department about fixing that intersection, over many years, and there were only 2 accidents there over 8 years as reported on by another commenter here (not confirmed).
    ;
    The intersection is bad now, but why all of a sudden is that intersection on everyone’s mind and yet no one in the neighborhood ever tried to get it fixed? Or did no one really care that much until now?

  21. MTP

    anon…unfortunately most people are too stupid or just blind to understand your point above…..

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