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Trees don’t screen these mosque facts and figures

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This Nancy On Norwalk illustration shows the size of the mosque and its community hall (yellow) in relation to its lot and the buildings in the neighborhood. It does not show the parking lot surrounding the Stonegate Condominiums across the street. It was made by taking a photo of the plans in the Planning and Zoning office and pasting it onto a GIS rendering of the neighborhood, available on the city’s website. Click illustration to enlarge,

 

NORWALK, Conn. – With all the noise surrounding the announcement of a proposed mosque settlement, some of the details are either being missed, distorted or misstated.

The existing building remains and is counted as part of the 23.88 percent lot coverage. Zoning regulations permit 25 percent lot coverage.

What is being referred to as a parking deck is actually part of the accessory building. It’s not a parking garage like the one next to the Maritime Aquarium.

The first-floor parking deck features 16 at grade parking spaces and 10 valet parking spaces, in place of indoor usable space of the accessory building. That contributes to the 47 percent reduction in floor area in the accessory building.

Mosque settlement first floor architectural rendering

The building sits in the center of the lot and will be surrounded by trees – more trees than called for in the original plan. That not only screens the view of the mosque but is intended to act as a sound buffer.

The plans call for 22 white pine trees, nine more than originally called for. The new plan calls for 107 Green Giant Arborvitae, described by QuickTrees.com as “the most desired fast growing evergreen creening tree in the country.” The original plan called for 100. The desirable evergreens would be bigger under the new plan, as the original plan was for 6-7-inch caliper but the new plan is for 9-10-inch caliper.

There’s a corresponding decline in ground cover plants. The original plan called for 168 Sargent’s Groundcover Juniper and the new plan calls for 78.

There are more pachysandra, an evergreen perennial that is part of the boxwood family, than originally planned. There were 350 bulbs planned and there are now 500 planned.

Twelve of the quicky evergreens are going along the road. The rest ring the property’s back. All of the white pines are planned to be along the road, in front of the mosque.

Mosque meets zoning regulations

Despite claims from some commenters, the mosque meets the zoning regulations.

This was repeated over and over again during the 2012 public hearings by Attorney John Fallon, who represented the mosque. The issue, commissioners said, was that a special permit was needed. That allows for a subjective interpretation of an application.

A false traffic study? 

Republican Town Committee Chairman Pete Torrano said in a Tuesday letter to the editor that Al Madany “conspired to falsify the traffic study that they offered to the Zoning Commission in support of their initial application.”

A source said members of the mosque were told that there would be a traffic study and that they should car pool while it was being done.

Attorney Chris Bouchoux of WilmerHale, who represents Al Madany, said Tueday night, “Al Madany accurately stated to the Zoning Commission that the anticipated number of cars arriving and departing from the proposed mosque site during peak hours would not significantly degrade the level of service for the surrounding roadways.”

Cities have paid a heavy price

There have been several RLUIPA cases in Norwalk’s back yard – New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties – and a LoHud story from May describes the financial expenses incurred by municipalities:

• $6.5 million: cost of Greenburgh’s 2013 settlement

• $4.75 million: cost of Mamaroneck’s 2008 settlement

• $450,000 in legal fees and $10,000 civil penalty: Cost of Airmont‘s case

• $1.5 million: Pomona’s legal fees in ongoing case

• $200,000: Suffern’s legal fees from 2010 settlement

The story quotes attorney Nicholas Ward-Willis, who represented Fortress Bible Church in its case against the town of Greenburg, as saying that Greenburg did everything wrong. That included the supervisor – akin to Norwalk’s mayor – instructing the town’s attorney to find ways to deny the application.

The resolution that the Norwalk Zoning Commission voted on during its June 6, 2012, public hearing was not the one the commission drafted in its committee meeting prior to the hearing. It was submitted to the commission minutes before the hearing began by Corporation Counsel Robert Maslan. Then-Zoning Commission member Mike Mushak said during the hearing that he was voting against the resolution because it wasn’t the one the committee had reviewed.

RLUIPA is constitutional – or not, depending on the lawyer

A lot has been made about the potential costs of continuing to fight this in court, with the possibility of losing. Attorney Marci Hamilton, nationally recognized Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) expert, called the proposed settlement “remarkable” last week.

“For me to say that, you should say ‘wow’, she said.

Hamilton said RLUIPA is unconstitutional, which was part of the reason she lauded Norwalk in what she called a landmark settlement – the city did not cave, she said.

But Daniel Dalton, a Michigan lawyer who represents religious entities throughout the United States in land use and zoning matters, disagrees about the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

Dalton published an article last summer about RLUIPA. “In the 13 years that RLUIPA has been in effect, federal courts have come to the general consensus that the Act is constitutional. From there, however, courts have been more varied in interpreting and applying the specific principles contained in RLUIPA’s land use provisions. Since RLUIPA litigation is a relatively new area, the body of case law interpreting the Act is constantly developing and changing.”

Dalton RLUIPA Article

Could the entire situation have been prevented?

Some people say that the furor over the application could have been avoided if the zoning regulations were changed before it was submitted. Mushak referred, in a February comment left on this website, to “obsolete zoning regulations that allowed the mosque to be built at that original size in the first place.”

A Google Earth
A Google Earth view of the neighborhood.

Asked about that, former Zoning Commission Chairwoman Jackie Lightfield said, “The zoning regs do need to be modernized and, yes, if Norwalk has addressed this awhile back it would have had greater design control of what was allowed.”

Lightfield said, in a February comment left on this website, “Changing zoning regulations is hard work. As chair of zoning I found it difficult to balance the time needs between review of significant applications, developing the aquifer protection agency and tackling regulations that sorely needed work. In the end, I view the best way to tackle our zoning regulations is to rewrite them in whole, rather than in parts.”

Zoning Commissioner Adam Blank said, after his reappointment was confirmed recently, that his goal is to lead a review and rewrite of the zoning regulations.

Mushak recently attempted to amend zoning regulations for Main Avenue, after the application for a BJ’s Wholesale Club was withdrawn. That effort was ended by Committee Chairwoman Emily Wilson and Zoning Commissioner Linda Kruk.

It is not possible to change regulations when the change would affect an application, including the Al Madany application making its way through the court.

Current mosque plans 1

Comments

37 responses to “Trees don’t screen these mosque facts and figures”

  1. Suzanne

    Yes, but does any of this address the real concerns of controlling potential accidents at the dangerous intersection at which this potential building will be located?

  2. John Hamlin

    Rewriting the zoning regulations would allow Norwalk an opportunity to think about what it wants to become. Do we want to become Connecticut Avenue — a repository for the areas big box stores — or move away from that? Do we want to promote our coastline/waterfront property or fill it with industrial and low income projects? Do we want to protect property owners or build a mosque next to every home? Rewrite the regs, look at the regs from communities we admire, and get some professional zoning experts from out of town to assist.

  3. One and Done

    Not a parking garage like the Maritime. But a parking deck, like Haviland Street. The mission here is an obvious one of invasion and destroying a neighborhood. No one in their right mind would move somewhere they aren’t welcome, unless of course they were looking for a fight. The lack of courage by anyone in this city to stop this madness is sending a very clear message to start looking for other places to live.

  4. Bruce Kimmel

    Once again, thank you Nancy for providing this information and for separating fact from fancy regarding this controversial issue. A true service to the city.

  5. Suzanne

    Does this mean there will be 26 spaces for parking in total to accommodate what I believe was the estimated number of families as 100? Lot coverage does not account for the full scope in height and bulk of a building.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @suzanne

      Total spaces grew from 89 to 135.

  6. Bill

    This is a monstrosity and will take away precious city property taxes. Sad day for Norwalk.

  7. Aga Khan

    It’s tiresome that these arguments are regurgitated again and again.

    @Suzanne this intersection is no more “dangerous” than any other intersection in Norwalk. If it were the police files would be overflowing with accidents and they are not. If you and others are traffic experts please show me your degree and then we can have a fact based conversation. Otherwise its all hypotheticals and suppositions by laymen (and women)

    There are 136 parking spaces in the new parking configuration. Which is 50% more than what the regulations require.

    At some point the question has to be asked why Al Madany is being asked to jump through hoops that no other groups is being asked to do? The regulations should apply to everyone uniformly. Otherwise you get into pickles like this.

  8. TLaw

    Oh, hey Farhan.

  9. Tim D

    @Aga Kahn – Who are you trying to impress? You got your mosque, you got what you wanted so why not clam up and stop insulting people with your rhetoric? OR! Put your name to it, I’ll be first to come up to and introduce myself at the Sept 4th hearing so that I may get a better measure of who you are and what you you are trying to accomplish here.

  10. Al Raymond

    Just have to say this, This building dose not fit into a residential setting nor should there be a parking garage on this site. I know we can`t tell people what to build on there own property so that being the case wouldn`t you think that the owners would have checked all this out before they bought, not just take it for granted that Norwalk will roll over & let the owner do what ever they want. I live on Stuart Ave.& Truman St. We are all ready see more traffic today than we have in years. Don`t forget were still looking at Lowes to be built with all that traffic,the new addition to the hospital, WAYPOINT,& a proposed MALL, the roads in our neighborhood can`t handle much more,& don`t give me this […] that there will be NO IMPACT every project has an impact. I think that I can safely say that the Neighbors don`t want a eye sore of a building like this one in our neighborhood (They should have asked first) it does not fit.

  11. Oldtimer

    Coulda, shoulda, woulda cooments on end. We seem absorbed in how different results could have been if a lot had been done prior to the mosque application. These steps were not done, we need to deal with the results now, not the results we think would have been better if.
    A settlement agreement has been reached. Continued fighting will cost a lot of money and is not likely to get a much different result. I don’t recall any similar opposition to a “house of worship” anywhere in Norwalk and I have been around a long time. Count the many houses of worship in Norwalk. Some were fought, mostly by nearby neighbors, some were not. None, obviously, were stopped. Continued innings in this coulda,shoulda,woulda game would be insanity. If some changes in local zoning rules would be a good thing, they should be done, but will only effect future applications, this one is a done deal. No matter what local changes are made, houses of worship will still be allowed anywhere, with permits, but the rules for permits could require bigger lots with less coverage.

  12. David

    @Suzanne: You keep on saying this intersection is dangerous – is there any consensus on that? Does the city agree? Has there been any action taken on taking the danger out of that intersection? What are the accident statistics for that intersection?
    .
    If the intersection is dangerous for cars going to worship on their day of worship, it’s dangerous for cars driving to work, going to the store, picking kids up from school.
    .
    Regardless of what happens with the Mosque, you seem to be saying that intersection needs to get fixed. right?

  13. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Bottom line, it meets and/or exceeds all of our zoning requirements. The legal team hired by Moccia supports the settlement and in fact says it is a great deal and if we deny it, the city will be liable for $10M, which will hurt our credit rating, raise our taxes and delay much needed improvements to our roads and schools. All this because ten people in one neighborhood are against the mosque. The city should take the deal and run.

  14. Non Partisan Voter

    Why have the republicans defended Mike Greene and our zoning regulations for the last thirty years when they clearly are so badly written?

  15. Aga Khan

    @Tlaw as much as you would like me to be Farhan Memon I am not. I do know him however and think he is a very smart and thoughtful person. The leadership of Norwalk could be using his talents in many ways. Hopefully he will contribute to our wider community.

  16. Suzanne

    No, Aga Khan. You are wrong. Try coming around and down that hill into an ongoing street. Whether there have been accident reports or not, adding this new element will just make this intersection that much scarier and that much more dangerous.
    *
    I would ask you, if Al Madany were Joe Smith, would this criteria be so difficult as to Zoning and compliance? No. Because Al Madany elicited the problems that have been visited upon them by evoking RLUIPA. Joe Smith would be dismissed out of hand because he is not a religious organization.
    *
    In spite of all of your claims, Aga Khan, in which you try to make this somehow a persecution of Muslims, show me where a property of this magnitude on this small of acreage has been allowed in Norwalk in a residential area. You will not find it in West Norwalk: all other religious institutions planned ahead to accommodate all of their needs through purchase of appropriate sized lots. Not Al Madany.
    *
    Every bit of prejudice you have claimed or lack of welcome to Muslims you have accused can be repudiated by looking at this one fact: Al Madany simply did not do enough due diligence in advance to ensure there was enough land to accommodate their Mosque. Who is fighting who?

  17. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Bottom line: the mosque application meets and/or exceeds all of the City of Norwalk’s Zoning requirements. The legal team that Moccia hired recommends that the settlement be approved and in fact, says it is a great deal in comparison to all the settlements around the country for the same issue. If we don’t approve the deal, the City will be liable for up to ten million dollars, the mosque will be built anyway, our credit rating will be negatively affected, and we will have to delay or cancel badly needed improvements to our roads and schools. All because the same ten people complain about it and the Hour continues to give them a big mouthpiece for their complaints. This is ridiculous. Sign the deal, improve Fillow Street and let’s move on.

  18. peter parker

    Mushak was right and it is clear zoning has failed the taxpayers, and has not kept up with the times. Zonings inaction and resistance to change is the reason for this whole mess. Norwalk’s zoning should have been changed long ago, its antiquated. The Entire zoning commission should be dismantled along with DPW. This city has real problems and we need to clean house starting with a do nothing Mayor who can’t make decisions, a fence sitter. Naturally DPW would be next on the list to rid us of the bumbling, and incompetent Alvord, and finally a zoning commission that refuses to make any changes and instills inaction as policy. What goes on in our city government is disgraceful!

  19. Oldtimer

    Off subject a bit, but needs to be brought up. This application to DEEP from redevelopment seems to be asking for exemption from flood control rules when Washington Village is re built. Isn’t some of the grant money dependent on following present flood control rules ? Is it possible somebody has been misled ?

    http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2586&Q=551530&deepNav_GID=1511

  20. Jeff

    Why is the mosques insistent on this location? How is this mosques maintaining the peace of the neighborhood when the noise of nearly 200 car doors will be heard slamming nearly simultaneously during early morning prayers? Is this a good neighbor? If Al-Madany wants a mosques in this location, I think the chapel on West Norwalk road would serve as a good template. . . and yes Norwalk does have a great chance in winning. Any rational minded jury could see the absurdity of this and please stop using the race card. It’s simply way out of scale. Norwalk is one of the most diverse, tolerant and accepting communities in the country. No nimby here just common sense.

  21. One and Done

    @Bill. Don’t worry. Either way our taxes will go up because of this.
    .
    The immediate neighbors surrounding the Mosque will lose 50% of their home’s value and that will spread throughout the neighborhood. Upon next revaluation, the rest of the tax burden will shift to other areas of the city.
    .
    Anyone trying to sell anywhere in the city will now have the prospect that any group of lunatics can declare to be members of a religion like the church of the flying spaghetti monster and build some whack-a-doo structure next door. That alone will depress all real estate in the entire city and cause people to flee, which in turn puts more pressure on existing taxpayers alla Bridgeport.
    .
    I’m not making up the part about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster by the way.
    .
    http://www.venganza.org/

  22. EveT

    @One and Done, can you cite any past incident where putting in a religious building or similar structure has cut real estate values in half? Or are you exaggerating?

  23. Jlightfield

    Let’s be clear that the exemption for religious AND educational institutions is problematic in our current zoning code. Any organization that operates 7 days a week from early morning to late evening ceases to be an occasional operation and resembles a commercial operation. That is the genesis of how to start looking at how to update zoning.
    .
    Meanwhile the fillow intersection does need attention that would accomplish several objectives: improve sight lines, add traffic calming and improve pedestrian infrastructure. The proposed driving range should also be a contributing factor to how traffic is handled in this area. Ironically a proactive adoption of complete streets would have required such improvements. Older neighborhoods in Norwalk have better traffic patterns because they follow time-tested design, a grid network of streets and utilities, sidewalks with verges and on street parking. The neighborhoods that people often complain most about traffic impact happen to be the ones designed under the cul-de-sac, feeder street design where traffic was always intentionally directed.
    .
    It is unfortunate that the settlement of this suit has largely been a process driven by zoning commission members who have demonstrated a lack of interest in the aesthetic, design and streetscape look that is so important to the unique characteristics of Norwalk’s neighborhoods. It is too bad that there is such an under appreciation of how good functional design creates a more pleasing neighborhood.

  24. Dennis DiManis

    It’s a disgrace. The Constitution mandates separation of church and state, yet religiosos with endless money to spend (where does all their money come from anyway?)run roughshod over the rest of us.

  25. John Hamlin

    Will those who oppose the mosque support zoning reform to protect all of Norwalk once the mosque has been built? Or do they view this as a unique problem incapable of repetition? Did they oppose big box stores and oppose an effective blight ordinance? All these issues are related.

  26. One and Done

    @EveT. Dearborn Michigan where houses that once sold for 200k to 300k can be bought for well under $100k now. The recipe is the same. Buy a small lot in a neighborhood. Build oversized structures that far outweigh the needs of the local worshipers. Create traffic, noise, and general unappealing conditions in the neighborhood that precipitously drop real estate valuations. Norwalk isn’t the only city they are using the same tactics either and no one knows where the money is coming from. By the way Eve, assuming your gender is representative of your screen name you do realize that the book of religion in question would calls for your oppression and subjugation solely on the basis of your gender don’t you?

  27. Suzanne

    John Hamlin, Zoning reform definitely has my vote.
    *
    Norwalk is a bunch of fragmented areas with no core identity, no approach to urban planning that makes life doable for everyone. So we plop a Mall here, a big box there while letting pedestrian access literally crumble among many other deficiencies.
    *
    I was in a very different place last week in Westchester. The town is one square mile. Every street had multiple access ways for all kinds of transportation. The downtown area was a series of small or medium sized shops and restaurants (outdoor eating), locally owned as in not franchises, of a variety of goods and services. Parks were prevalent and being used. In other words, this was a town held together by zoned infrastructure that allowed for a pleasant, maybe even slower but more humane life.
    *
    This does not exist in Norwalk. To say the Commission has just been too busy with everyday business is not enough, not anymore.
    *
    I believe one way the regulations could be examined for reform would be through an advocacy group like Mayor Rilling has formed for other pressing issues (I can’t remember the official title) that include informed, professional citizens who could review and make recommendations for change. They could go section by section vetting the impacts and/or improvements and present each section, “soup to nuts”, as items on the agenda (for action not endless debate.)
    *
    I believe it was Mike Mushak who presented a link to a city in Virginia (?) who committed to this type of reform, all the players at the table. It went through two mayors (as I recall) but it successfully transformed the fabric and development of a town and was nationally recognized for its achievements.
    *
    I apologize for not remembering the reference but maybe Norwalk could take something from this town’s successful playbook. I think if one town can do it, so can Norwalk. It takes the will, perseverance and perspective to see it through. Zoning reform is absolutely needed.

  28. Oyster

    @O&D,
    Dearborn’s property value declines are likely to be a result of the financial implosion of Michigan’s major city–Detroit. Calling out a city with a large muslim population, but not pointing out a specific structure and specific residential area with before and after property values, along with stats for the rest of the city to prove the declines are directly related to the presence of a mosque is not evidence of anything.

  29. One and Done

    @Oyster. Please explain then why cities like Troy and other surrounding towns have recovered all of their market valuations and how it is just some coincidence that the Islamic Council of America HQ is in Dearborn. Thanks.

  30. Masie

    In the past, religious institutions were built and towns and cities grew around them because people wanted to be near their house of worship. You can’t just plop a religious institution in the middle of a residential neighborhood, especially if none of the neighbors practice that religion.

  31. One and Done

    @Masie. Great points.
    .
    I’d also like to see a show of hands on how many people actually think the Mosque will live up to some of these agreements. For example, the amplified call to prayer. Who is really going to stop them from doing that and wouldn’t they just turn around and sue us again for more religious discrimination and take even more of our tax dollars? Given the city’s noise ordinances that would actually be a legitimate case as opposed to the frivolous one the mayor is bending over on right now.

  32. Oyster

    What noise ordinances? We can’t even tell the ice cream truck to lower its music, like other cities do.

  33. UN Envoy

    Masie, you are wrong. In West Norwalk, all within less than a half mile of the mosque site in AA and AAA Residence zones, there are 2 churches, one synagogue, and 4 schools.
    ;
    St. Matthews is just across the park from the mosque site, and has become a mega-church with multiple expansions since it was built 50 years ago, the largest religious institution in Norwalk and one of the biggest in the state, with a membership of 2,400 families and a facility including classrooms and an “event space” (catering hall) that dwarfs the mosque in square footage. There are also over 300 parking spaces. This is on 6 acres, but more than half of that is wetlands and woods, and so all of that massive development is crammed into a corner of the property on high ground, at a density that far exceeds what the mosque is proposing.
    ;
    Temple Shalom and United Congregational are also both huge regional religious institutions with hundreds of member families each that draw folks from all over like St Matthews does (and perhaps a few from the neighborhood as well), and are all located in the same AAA zone that the mosque is proposed in. It is absurd and revealing of your bias for you to say religious institutions don’t belong in residential neighborhoods when almost every one in Norwalk already is, including 3 major ones within a half mile of the mosque in West Norwalk. The mosque has 100 member families.
    ;
    The schools include 3 elementary schools and the largest community college in the state, NCC, with 11,000 students. All in AA or AAA Residence zones. These kinds of facilities have always been included in residential zones. The difference is, Norwalk has a zoning code that allows almost any size facility, which is why the mosque bought the property in the first place. Their original plans followed all of our codes for height, size, and parking.
    ;
    That is why the city will never win this case, and if the settlement is rejected, it will cost taxpayers $4 million to fight the case even if the city wins which is impossible, according to some of the best lawyers in the country that Mayor Moccia hired. If we lose, which we will, it will cost up to $10 million that will have to be paid for by higher taxes and reduced services for everyone in Norwalk no matter where they live, for years. And the people to blame will be the ones trying to kill the settlement, which if it fails to pass, will leave the city in a lose/lose situation to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars we don’t have, and which we won’t have for our schools, roads, and other programs.

  34. One and Done

    UN Envoy. Except you are talking about 1.5 acres that anyone with an ounce of sanity looks at and laughs when they think of a fool trying to build what you are there. When you can’t understand the animosity you will burden now and forever because of your choice to destroy this neighborhood, you will only have to look yourself in the mirror. You could have avoided this and you will reap what you sow.

  35. Masie

    UN Envoy, I did not say that there are no other houses of worship in residential neighborhoods. What I said is that these places were built first, and communities grew around them.

  36. Suzanne

    UN Envoy, You clearly have never been to West Norwalk. St. Matthews purchased a wide swath of land that is not seen when driving by and is located on Scribner Avenue no where near the mosque site. It is not a mega-church which shows you have clearly never been there. Please note that you note there are 300 parking spaces available to members of the church for catered events, mass, etc. There is no “crammed” spaces (unless you count the number of people on Christmas in the pews.) It is well planned and considerate of the space it occupies. It is far from the Mosque scenario, an over-sized building, bulky and tall on a small space. (And, yes, I do know that the lousy Zoning Codes for Norwalk allow this behemoth on this minuscule piece of land.)

    Likewise, Temple Shalom and the Congregationalist church both are sited on larger pieces of land with adequate entrance and egress not included in the plans for the Mosque. To compare these religious institutions to the mosque plans is just disingenuous at best.

    All the rest you mention is so much blahbity, blah endlessly repeated by mosque supporters. As I said on another thread, it is a shame something legal is simply not right.

    Al-Madany could have chosen more wisely. They could have found a place that would accommodate all of their needs and then some, just like the other religious institutions in the neighborhood. They did not. But, they had a good attorney who knows how to invoke laws that again, are legal but, in this case especially, simply not right.

    As a UN Envoy, it would be more agreeable if you saw both sides of the story.

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