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RTC attack on mosque settlement called ‘factually inaccurate’

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(Ed Camacho is the chairman of the Norwalk Democratic Town Committee and serves on the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation. He also is an attorney.)

To the editor:

My counterpart, Peter Torrano, the Republican Town Chair, recently wrote an editorial in which he attacked Mayor Harry Rilling and Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola for the proposed settlement of the Al Madany law suit.  Mr. Torrano’s attacks are factually inaccurate.  And, in seeking to make a political issue out of a land use case, Mr. Torrano ignores important land use issues and legal considerations which underlie the case.

First, Mr. Torrano refuses to acknowledge real risks for the neighborhood if Al Madany wins the law suit. The original proposal was denied by the Zoning Commission for various reasons, such as the lack of enough parking, the community building’s size, etc.  The proposed settlement properly addresses all such issues.  The usable square footage of the community building, which was part of the original application questioned by the Commission, has been reduced from 15,940s square feet to 8,491 square feet, a reduction of approximately 47 percent. The on-site parking has increased from 89 spaces to 135 spaces, an increase of approximately 52 percent. The landscaping plan was created based upon suggestions by representatives of the Stonegate Condominium Association. The proposed settlement now includes all of the traffic calming measures proposed by the city’s traffic expert, and all of the conditions of approval requested by the city.  It was reasonable for the Zoning Commission to reject the original application.

It would be unreasonable for the Commission to fail to approve the current proposal, which properly addresses the city’s concerns.

Were the city to loses the case, the Commission would be ordered to approve the original proposal for a much larger building, with insufficient parking and none of the conditions of approval included in the proposed settlement.

Second, Stonegate Condominium Association participated in all of the zoning hearings and in the litigation as an intervening party.  Stonegate was opposed to the initial application, but now supports the current settlement.  In fact, Stonegate’s board of directors voted unanimously to approve the proposed settlement.

Third, Republicans participated in the settlement process. Chairman Joe Santo and Vice Chairman Emily Wilson were the only representatives from the Zoning Commission who attended the mediation sessions, and the city attorneys took direction from them when negotiating the land use issues in the case.  The last mediation was attended by Common Council representatives from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, including Mr. Jerry Petrini, the majority leader of the Common Council, a well respected Republican.

Fourth, religious institutions are allowed in AAA Residence zones in Norwalk just as they are all over the country. The mosque bought property with the understanding that our zoning code permitted the intended use there. Eventually, the code needs to be updated to address issues of scale and parking requirements for all institutional uses in residential neighborhoods, as part of a long-overdue comprehensive overhaul of our zoning regulations. Mayor Rilling is committed to helping make this happen, through commission appointments and other initiatives.

In the meantime, where does Mr. Torrano suggest we get the monies necessary to continue to litigate the Al Madany law suit?  Where does he suggest we get the monies to pay a judgment were we to lose the case?  And, what programs shall we cut in order to fund the litigation and the potential judgment against the city?

Now that we have a reasonable proposal for the development of the mosque, Norwalk taxpayers simply do not have millions of dollars to waste battling a long court case for political reasons.  Mr. Torrano and some members of the RTC are asking every Norwalk resident and business to get hit with a combination of huge tax increases and service cuts. This includes cutting the repaving of streets, and cuts to our schools which are doing so well now but still need much investment to compete and maintain Norwalk’s attractiveness to new residents and businesses. It is easy to throw out political accusations without the facts to back them up.  Now is the time for Mr. Torrano and others to answer the tough questions regarding this case.

Norwalk has always been an open and inclusive city that accepts and celebrates diversity, from the earliest days of our founding in 1651 by English settlers seeking religious freedom from oppression.  That is who we are, and that is something to be proud of. We are a rich melting pot of religions, ethnicities, and income levels. Al Madany comprises about 100 local families who are part of our community, who are seeking a dream to have their own place of worship just like most other religions have in Norwalk.

For the reasons set forth above, I strongly urge our Zoning Commission and Common Council to approve this bi-partisan settlement.

Ed Camacho

 

Comments

17 responses to “RTC attack on mosque settlement called ‘factually inaccurate’”

  1. One and Done

    In fewer words, Norwalk Democrats support the Mosque and Republicans do not in its current location. At least we are clear now on where the politicos stand.

  2. Suzanne

    “Eventually, the code needs to be updated to address issues of scale and parking requirements for all institutional uses in residential neighborhoods, as part of a long-overdue comprehensive overhaul of our zoning regulations.”
    *
    So, in the meantime, the citizens of West Norwalk must pay for the malfeasance of a Zoning Commission that did not update its code to meet residential requirements with a too large building and ridiculous lack of consideration for the dangerous intersection upon which the attendees at the Mosque must enter and exit.
    *
    It is sad when the fear of lawsuits are what drive policy and not the right thing to do.

  3. EveT

    What happens if the settlement is rejected, the case goes through litigation, and Al Madany loses? Is it true, as Councilman Kimmel has stated, that Al Madany can come back and reapply and at that point Norwalk would have to let them build the mosque?

  4. One and Done

    @EveT. Yes, it’s true Bruce Kimmel wants a mosque no matter what the circumstances are. Maybe we should give them the senior center so he can live close by.

  5. UN Envoy

    In just as few words, based on this letter, it looks like Norwalk Democrats support fiscal responsibility, legal fact-based realities, and the need to fix a broken zoning code that encouraged the mosque to buy the property in the first place, and Norwalk Republicans represented by people like “One and Done” (read his numerous anti-Muslim comments on NON by running a search above) represent intolerance and hatred, and fiscal insanity by throwing away $4 million even if we win a court case, and up to $10 million if we lose. Ironically, the comments from the RTC Chair and other anti-mosque folks will make it that much easier for the mosque to win in court.
    ;
    The truth is, the mosque has about 100 families as members, most from Norwalk who have lived here for years. St. Matthews is much larger than the mosque, with 2,400 families who are from other towns besides Norwalk, is just across the park from the mosque site, and is also on a narrow road with blind curves (Scribner) that has the about the same amount traffic as Fillow Street. St. Matthews has over 300 parking spaces, and a catering hall and classrooms. Yet no one complains about that mega-church in a AAA residence zone. Also, Temple Shalom and the United Congregational are also very large and within a half mile of the mosque site, in AAA residence zones. Still no complaints from anyone.

    How about these facilities all in AAA Residence zones in West Norwalk: the mammoth Dolce Center that has huge events regularly, Norwalk Community College with 11,000 students, or 3 elementary schools with about 500 students and about 80 staff each? Have any of these ever caused gridlock or traffic jams anywhere in West Norwalk?

    Finally, practically no one (maybe two people did) from West Norwalk showed up at the Oak Hills Master Plan public hearing two months ago to complain about the hundreds of cars expected every day at the proposed huge driving range and golf learning center. Why are so many people including the RTC suddenly concerned about traffic from a 100-family mosque, and yet the 2,400 family mega-church St. Matthews that has expanded numerous times over the years (to such a point that it has its own DOT signage out on CT Ave.) and the huge proposed golf driving range and learning center, got free rides with no opposition from West Norwalk neighbors? I have asked this question many times, and still no answer. Maybe because we all know already what the answer is.

  6. Suzanne

    UN Envoy – Please come to West Norwalk and get your facts straight. Scribner is not a “blind curve” road, period. The Church is out of sight of passersby and has used the land responsibly. It is NOT “across the park” from the Mosque site. The fact that it has a DOT sign? It has been there for years long before any expansions. I, for one, have found it helpful in the past.

    Your litany about the driving range is also incorrect – to a massive scale. Do a search on NON and you will find a great deal of opposition to that facility. In addition, the Friends of Oak Hills Park ALWAYS has representatives at EVERY OHPA meeting. Particularly, the Master Plan meeting because the OHPA had the vendor prepare the plan without going through the procedures every Park must go through in the City of Norwalk to prepare one.

    The fact that there is a long list of institutions residing in West Norwalk just shows the saturation point we have reached. This is NOT a Muslim problem and I, for one, would welcome a Mosque. Just not on this lot and in this location and it would not matter if it was a Mosque or a school building.

    Zoning regulations may have been met using RULIPA but I consider that a manipulation of the law we are paying for because Al-Madany did not prepare well enough by purchasing enough land to accommodate their facility. They could have just looked around at the many churches that already exist in West Norwalk to see that.

    There is this idea that there must be either Muslim hatred or a NIMBY attitude by the people of West Norwalk in order to be against this Mosque. That is simply not true: this is a development problem not a religious problem.

    It is too bad that something so legal can be so very wrong. Too bad that the City of Norwalk, out of fear of lawsuits, will do the wrong things instead of the right one out of a sense of politics and not correct purpose.

  7. Jeff

    I recently came across Peter Nolin’s letter to the editor for the Hour and think it sums up most of the neighborhood view. Here’s the text from today’s Hour and think it’s what a majority of the neighborhood believes among other paramount issues it addresses,

    “To the Editor:

    As a life-long West Norwalk resident for more than 50 years, a past president of the West Norwalk Association, former member of the Planning Commission, and a former Corporation Counsel for the City, I oppose the Al-Madany proposal and the proposed settlement now being considered by the Zoning Commission.

    A mosque, like any other house of worship, is welcome in Norwalk generally and West Norwalk in particular as long as the location and parcel size are appropriate. Neither is true for this settlement proposal. Three buildings, including a large community center, on this one and a half acre parcel, are not appropriate or safe for this corner of Fillow Street. The Zoning Commission rightly denied the application previously and should deny the proposed settlement now because of same the traffic considerations.

    The intersection at issue has an extreme curve coming into it from the Kendall neighborhood and the elevation of that curve above the intersection and the lower upswing from North Taylor make it a very dangerous corner even when weather is perfect and traffic is light. Adding what will certainly be hundreds of cars parked on and off the site (the proposal is for less than 150 spaces on the property but we all know there will be many hundreds of users of this community center) creates a traffic nightmare for years to come. Nothing in this alleged compromise will reduce the parking or traffic problems. Any member of any board or commission voting for this settlement is voting for the ruin of this area of Norwalk and future accidents and injuries at this problematic intersection.

    Zoning Commissioners and Council Members — please do not disregard all of the residents and homeowners who live in the area and oppose this giant project. Our legal case is winnable and should not be abandoned for such an unfavorable settlement. The Mayor assured us in the last election that he would let the case take its course. That is exactly what we should do. Turn this terrible settlement down and force Al-Madany to make a more reasonable offer or seek a better site.

    For the record, I take issue with statements by Councilman Bruce Kimmel, who I respect as community leader, that the city is forced into three losing scenarios. Contrary to Bruce’s pessimistic view that if the City wins the federal case then the only outcome for Al-Madany is to re-apply with a similar proposal which must be approved by Zoning or the courts. On the contrary, if the City wins, as it is likely to do, Al-Madany does not automatically get to build whatever they want. Indeed, if we win the case and are found not to have discriminated against this religious application, Al- Madany will be in a difficult position. Yes, they can reapply, but if the new proposal does not meet the traffic and parking concerns raised by Zoning, Norwalk could of course turn it down again. And in that instance Al- Madany would have little recourse. If they sued again they would very likely lose and owe the city legal fees. So the suggestion by Councilman Kimmel that the city cannot win, no matter what, is just defeatist and likely to scare residents into an ill-conceived settlement that gets the neighborhood nothing. If the city wins the case as it is likely to do, the loser will be Al-Madany not the neighborhood. Residents should not believe that if Norwalk wins it still loses.

    So we should stay the course. When the city wins, as it is very likely to do if we continue with the case, the only remedies for the Al-Madany group would be to re-apply with a greatly reduced proposal or they could find a new site elsewhere. Both of those options are open and available to them now and turning down this settlement will encourage them to pursue those other avenues now, not later. Now.

    The other bit of misinformation going around is that Norwalk should cave because the Stonegate Condominiums is now willing to settle, That Stonegate has agreed to settle for a reported $60,000 cash payment is only is indicative of an associationwhich cannot afford the legal fight, not a group that thinks the settlement is fair or good for the city. Clearly, the settlement cash comes with strings attached and the Stonegate board had to issue a statement supportive of a settlement, despite the fact they know the majority of their residents, like the rest of the community, oppose this mess of a settlement.

    So let’s get back to the merits. The issue has never been the mosque itself. So claims of religious discrimination are particularly weak. This proposal was turned down largely, if not entirely, because of the attached community center which will surely overburden the site and create parking and traffic problems. If Al-Madany had applied for just the mosque I am sure they would have little or no community opposition.

    Those who have stated that “federal law gives a preference to religious groups in zoning matters because of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious free speech” demonstrate why RLUIPA is unconstitutional as it is being used here and elsewhere in America today. The U.S. Constitution prevents the government from giving any preference to a religion or religions generally under the First Amendment Establishment Clause. That is one of the key arguments our attorneys have advanced in this case and we should let the Court determine that issue on summary judgment motions next spring, or at trial next year or on a subsequent appeal.

    If a settlement now is important, a perfectly reasonable solution might be to build the Mosque as proposed and build the community center elsewhere. The community center is not a protected exercise of religion and should not serve as valid grounds for an RLUIPA claim. I remain confident that the community and the Zoning Commission would support such a compromise. Again as an alternative, the City could work with Al-Madany to find another more suitable site in town. There are lots of likely properties which would meet Al-Madany’s needs without overburdening any neighborhood or traffic concerns.

    Neighbors I urge you to turn out Thursday, Sept. 4, at 7:30 p.m., at City Hall to oppose this demonstrably destructive settlement proposal.

    Peter M. Nolin

    Norwalk”

  8. isabelle hargrove

    Mr. Camacho letter raises 1 important question in my mind. If he agrees that “It was reasonable for the Zoning Commission to reject the original application”, then why is he trying to encourage our common council to approve over $350K to compensate the Al-Madany group? This is fiscal responsibility in his mind?
    *
    And he losses all credibility when he conveniently forgets to mention that the city is PAYING the condo association’s unanimous vote with $60K! I personally find it despicable that Norwalk’s corporation counsel would give my hard earned cash to my neighbors so they can help discredit my concerns, not because they disagree, but because they are paid to do so!
    *
    Mr. Camacho is also wrong on zoning, it is not because people were invited to the negotiations and participated that their voice and concerns were necessarily answered in this settlement. These are all very misleading statements that parties involved cannot collaborate or refuse until the court case is done, how convenient and political!!

  9. EveT

    I wish someone who is actually a lawyer with expertise in RLUIPA (not @One and Done, thank you) would answer the question: Who is right, Bruce Kimmel or @Jeff? If the City wins the federal case then what is the outcome?
    Is it true, as Kimmel states, that Al Madany could come back with another, similar application that Norwalk would have to approve?
    Or, as @Jeff states, that Norwalk would have the right to deny a new application and “in that instance Al- Madany would have little recourse. If they sued again they would very likely lose and owe the city legal fees.”
    Which of these statements is accurate?

  10. anon

    This is political only to politicos, to most others, it’s the traffic.

    @Camacho, can you post the traffic studies?

    This decision will affect all Norwalk. Norwalk is a deliberately diverse community and proud of it. Traffic has nothing to do with discrimination, and everything to do with good planning.

    FOR EXAMPLE:

    There are 16 mosques or Islamic centers in 16 cities in the State of Connecticut. The Fillow street location will be the largest in Connecticut, 5 times the size of Stamford’s.

    In comparison, 145 Connecticut cities have Catholic churches, many having more than 1. Norwalk has 7 Catholic churches. Stamford has 16.

    54 Connecticut cities have synagogues, many have more than 1. Norwalk has 4. Stamford has 7.

    This mosque is a regional destination. What happens to West Norwalk, yes. What happens to Connecticut Avenue and Route 1?

    Editor’s note: NoN obtained and will be posting the traffic studies later tonight/early morning.

  11. Jeff

    @EveT. Peter Nolin is a practicing attorney with real estate and land use expertise.

  12. Peter Torrano

    Mr. Camacho,

    My friend, you’ve taken liberties with your letter by assuming that all of the things you say we Republicans are contesting on behalf of the residents of a large area of of city were not taken into consideration. That is factually incorrect. The letter that I submitted and signed was actually on behalf of the entire RTC executive committee, including a highly regarded ex-Norwalk Corporation Counsel, several business owners, and residents of West Norwalk. There were at least seven people who actually contributed to the letter, and all of the issues were discussed and all possibilities explored. To say otherwise is also factually incorrect. You may call it politics if you like, and that would be correct if you are referring to the Democrats. It was Mayor Rilling, who as a member of the Zoning Commission said that if elected mayor he would allow the matter to run its course. He has not. There are obvious political reasons for Mayor Rilling to want to get this sticky mosque situation behind him, not the least of which is re-election. He does that, as you have done, by pulling the political rabbit out of the hat with references to several Republicans, both Councilman and Zoning Commissioners. Our Corporation Counsel, Mr. Coppola just finished a case in Greenwich in which he was actually on the other side of the issue, claiming that a house of worship, a synagog would cause too much traffic and be a problem for the neighborhood. The synagog was substantially smaller than the proposed mosque with arguably less people intending to use it. How does he straddle the fence calling one situation unacceptable, and the other perfectly all right? Who is telling him what to do? You failed for some reason to address one of the most troubling and dangerous issues, and that is traffic. Most of the complaints I’ve heard have much more to do with the dangerous intersection, the close proximity of a school, condo units nearby, and the real issue of increased traffic. It is these issues, along with the inevitable loss of property value by our neighbors in West Norwalk as a result of a large structure with a parking deck going into this residential neighborhood. There is no doubt in my mind that a mosque will be built there. But, it needs to be reasonable in its size. The same people who are curiously now quiet about the mosque are the same ones who were railing against big-box stores in areas that were more appropriate to them than this area is to a large structure of any kind. One of them was Mayor Rilling. Remember?

    Many members of the Republican Party, and I know many members of the Democratic Party as well, are opposed to this structure in its current form. Playing a little slight of hand by removing a portion of the usable space and now calling it parking does not reduce the real size of the building. If I were to switch my basement and first floor around, my house would still be the same size.

    This is not politics, Mr. Camacho. This is common sense and standing with our neighbors, not just in West Norwalk, but city-wide. Have you heard them? Are you listening to them? If 50 residents of West Norwalk lose $100,000 of their property value, there is your $5 million dollar loss. At some point someone needs to take a stand and say “enough.” Being bullied into settling to avoid a possible loss in a lawsuit is wrong. The same lawyer who said that the agreement proposed is remarkable is the same one who said that should this go through the court system that we, the City and her taxpayers, have a more than excellent chance of winning. Time to take that stand. The Republican Town Committee is standing beside our friends and neighbors.

  13. Ed Camacho

    @Peter Torrano. The choices before us are extremely limited by law, and the settlement agreement which addresses most of the concerns being voiced now has been praised by the nationally prominent legal team that Mayor Moccia hired before Mayor Rilling was elected last November. Marci Hamilton, one of the top experts in the country on religious land use laws and who Mayor Moccia hired, has said this settlement is “very good for the city,” because not settling now would be fiscally irresponsible, and could potentially cost the city up to $4 million even if we won the court case, or up to $10 million if we lose, which all the experts are saying is likely based on the federal laws involved and past case history.

    Norwalk deserves the best fiscally responsible decision they can get. It would be pure fiscal madness to deny this well-conceived and bi-partisan settlement that top lawyers in the country have vetted carefully and strongly endorse.

    Ed Camacho

  14. Jeff

    Mr. Torrano. Thank you for standing up and being a rational voice for us. Much appreciated!

  15. Just Asking.

    Mr. Nolin is not a RLUIPA expert. Marci Hamilton, who Mayor Moccia hired to defend the city and who is a prominent national expert on RLUIPA including having written a book on it, has strongly recommended the settlement. She even called it “remarkable”. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/08/national-expert-settlement-between-al-madany-and-norwalk-is-remarkable/
    ;

    Mr. Nolin is a local lawyer that takes on all types of cases, including this one where he sued all the city leaders of the Town of Westport to get a full pension for a firefighter convicted of embezzling city funds which he used for porno and fancy meals. http://www.thehour.com/news/westport/ex-westport-firefighter-sues-dept/article_84a3b9cf-3465-5b15-af07-3761c8708aab.html
    ;
    He is also Vice-Chair of the Norwalk Republican Town Committee, and nominated and voted for Zoning Vice-Chair Emily Wilson over former BET Chair Fred Wilms, to be the party-endorsed candidate for the 142nd District (Larry Cafero’s seat.) https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/05/wilson-wins-gop-backing-in-run-for-142nd-district-seat/. Mayor Moccia supported Mr Wilms, and he also happened to have hired Marcy Hamilton who recommended the settlement Peter Nolin is so adamantly against in the letter copied in Jeff’s post above.
    ;
    Wilson lost that primary on August 12th. Ms. Wilson is scheduled to vote on the mosque settlement on Thursday. Is it in any way possible internal Republican rivalries are helping to fuel this ambitious campaign to kill the settlement, that may end up costing city taxpayers between $4 million (if we win) and 10 million (if we lose), and even worse, costing us our AAA bond rating which could cost us even millions more forcing draconian cuts in the school budget, road paving, and parks maintenance? Just asking.

  16. One and Done

    The city should not quit fighting this until they at least get a real bid of what the legal expenses would be. You never know. Someone seeing this frivolous suit and the possible publicity it would bring might just do it pro bono. That publicity would stink for Norwalk, but the neighbors do deserve their voices to be heard.

  17. Buddy Revel

    Its funny what a hypocrite Torrano is. When you see him at a function he id all over Harry Rilling brown-nosing.

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