Whether or not the mosque proposed to be built on Old Trenton Road by the Institute for Islamic Studies meets the criteria of an inherently beneficial use is expected to be debated at a fourth Zoning Board hearing on the matter on Thursday, June 16.
That notion — as well as a self-imposed maximum of 483 attendees in the building at any given time that IIS has agreed to accept as a condition — were among the debated items at the third hearing on the matter on June 2.
IIS wants to develop 7.17 acres of currently vacant land at 2030 Old Trenton Road into a house of worship. The plans would require a use variance because the property is currently located in the RO-1 zone, which permits research and office uses.
According to the plans, IIS would construct a facility that includes a house of worship, multi-purpose hall, offices, kitchen, adult social area including a kitchen and housing for its spiritual leader, and a health care facility at the site. The proposed site is near Windsor Center Drive in East Windsor and Dorchester Drive/Dantone Boulevard in West Windsor.
There was no shortage of tension that has been present throughout the hearings, as the June 2 meeting began with the Zoning Board addressing allegations against one of its own members. A group of 24 residents submitted a letter prior to the hearing alleging that board member Shawki Salem was biased and should recuse himself from participating or voting on the application.
However, Zoning Board Attorney Ed Schmierer said he had the opportunity to review the transcripts of the prior hearings and observed the meetings personally and found "there’s no basis whatsoever for Mr. Salem to step down."
"My advice would be to continue to allow all members of the board" to participate in the hearing, said Schmierer.
Responding to the allegations, Salem said he was surprised to hear about the accusations. "It is really very unfortunate and really un-American to do this," he said, adding that he took an oath "to do what’s best for the community and for the town" when he votes on matters before the board.
During the three hours of continued testimony, it was also revealed that the IIS wants to include an outside basketball court to its site to allow its Sunday school children a specific area to participate in recreational activities. Opponents immediately jumped on the addition, pointing to IIS’s earlier testimony that no formal recreational activities would take place outside of the structure.
Also on June 2, IIS’s planner John McDonough also presented a list of new and revised documents on behalf of IIS to the board, as requested during prior meetings. That included a document with the other sites IIS considered before choosing the Old Trenton Road location, a map of nearby mosques, and a list of conditions they would accept to help ease the concerns of their neighbors.
The new plans rotated the building by 90 feet so that the front door of the building faces away from the Elements development, which increases the buffering between the two sites. The setbacks on the site increased to 116.21 feet.
The board also heard from its own consultants, most of whom said their small list of concerns were addressed by IIS in their revised documents. They had little to say about the application.
John Madden, the board’s planner, referred to McDonough’s testimony, during which he presented case law describing the criteria for a use to be inherently beneficial — an argument that the IIS has maintained, but opponents have fought.
Referring to one of the criteria that states the use must promote public morals, Madden said, "What would promote public morals more than a house of worship?" He also pointed to the list of services the mosque would be providing to the community, including its senior center, which would be open to all residents, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
Madden also testified that houses of worship are allowed in most residential areas of the township. Responding to questioning from board members about other areas of the township where houses of worship are permitted in nonresidential areas, he told the board that the ROR zone, which does permit houses of worship and in which the Jewish Community Campus and a Presbyterian Church are located, was "created to accommodate those uses."
This is why the ROR zone permits houses of worship, while the RO-1 zone, the research office district where the mosque would be located, does not. The RO-1 zone is not considered to be a residential zone, though the township does permit "semi-public uses" in that zone. While West Windsor does not specifically include houses of worship in its list of "semi-public uses," other towns do, he said.
When it comes to the parking, the 219 spaces on site to accommodate the maximum of 483 people in the building, the parking was "more than adequate."
"They’ve addressed all the negative criteria I had by the conditions they have offered," said Madden.
Township professionals also testified that there is a section of township code that provides exemptions to height requirements in any zone for church spirals. While the height limit in the RO-1 zone is 45 feet, church spirals are permitted to stand as tall as 55 feet in height in any zone. The minaret proposed by the mosque would stand at 55 feet.
Residents were not convinced, however, that the mosque would not attract new members, and with it, more traffic and attendees to services in West Windsor. They questioned how the mosque could control and limit the number of people coming to services to ensure no more than 483 people would attend services.
One resident, Joe Costa, also raised concerns about the mosque’s current practices after he went to the current mosque in East Windsor during a Friday night service in April, where he said he watched more than the number of cars that IIS had testified drive onto the site for services. He also said they were directed to park illegally in fire lanes.
"I’m assuming what you do to your current neighbors is what you are going to do to your future neighbors," he said.
Another resident, Daniel Weitz, asked whether IIS officials were concerned with the location of the basketball courts on site — a location he says backs directly against a hunting area. "You’re not concerned with the fact that hunting takes place right up to that property line?"
While the room was mostly filled with opponents of the mosque, there were some supporters.
Rabbi Eric B. Wisnia, of the Congregation Beth Chaim, made his comments in support of the mosque because he would not be able to attend the next meeting, when public comment will be held. He said officials at Beth Chaim voted unanimously to support the application because they felt it is an inherently beneficial use to the community. He said that IIS engages in interfaith activities and that IIS has been a friend to the community. He also said that religious institutions have helped mold the community.
He said the health club that was previously granted a zoning variance for the same site would have been a "much heavier use."
"It is very strange and distressing that a number of people are complaining so much" about a house of worship, he said. The mosque would be a "benefit and not a detriment to the community," he added.
Opponents argue, however, that it is case law that has found houses of worship to be inherently beneficial uses and that Municipal Land Use Law does not designate them as such. Anne Studholme, an attorney representing a group of residents who oppose the mosque, will be presenting a brief and a presentation about that matter when the hearing continues on June 16.
For the full story, check out the print edition on Friday, June 10.