After a hearing that spanned several meeting dates, the West Windsor Zoning Board has unanimously approved a use variance for a mosque to be constructed by the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) on Old Trenton Road.
The vote came around 8:45 p.m. on June 16, during the fourth hearing on what has perhaps become the most controversial matter to be reviewed by the Zoning Board.
The hearing lacked the public presence and intensity that had been brought by opposing residents at prior meetings. The residents who hired attorney Anne Studholme to fight the mosque have “no longer retained her services, so there will be no presentation,” announced Zoning Board Chairman John Roeder at the beginning of the meeting. She had been expected to make a presentation about the reasons the board should not grant the zoning variance.
Prior to voting, Zoning Board members said they believed the mosque would serve as an “inherently beneficial use” — a point Studholme argued was not true — and that its presence would enhance the West Windsor community. Further, they said, the mosque would be a less intensive use than a health and fitness center for which they had previously granted a use variance for the site.
Zoning Board member Susan Abbey pointed out that even if the mosque did not meet the criteria for being deemed an inherently beneficial use — which she thought it had — it is still beneficial to West Windsor. “A house of worship is still a positive use of property in West Windsor,” she said, especially when you compare a mosque with a three-story building or health club that was already approved for the site.
“This is less intrusive in every single way,” Abbey added. “There will be fewer people going in and out.” The building also has less of a maximum impervious coverage and less of a floor-area ratio than the fitness center. “No matter how you look at it, I think this should be approved.”
Other Zoning Board members pointed out that there would be traffic impacts, but the more intense traffic would only come a few times a year on high holidays, and most of it would occur at off-peak hours. “There is a small window of time that might be somewhat difficult, but when you think about a health club that was already approved,” the conditions would have been much worse at more hours and days of the week, said board member Ed Steele. “In my opinion, we should approve this.”
Gary Guleria, another Zoning Board member, echoed the sentiment, saying that traffic would increase, “but it’s only for specific times, and we can live with it.”
Zoning Board members did suggest, however, that the IIS review its plans to include a basketball court on the site when it comes back for site plan approval before the mosque can be constructed. The court was added to IIS’s plans during an earlier meeting in June, and surrounding residents remained concerned that the basketball court would create excessive noise and decrease their quality of life.
IIS plans to develop 7.17 acres of currently vacant land at 2030 Old Trenton Road into a house of worship. The plans required 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 use variance was approved with a list of conditions, including a cap on the maximum occupancy at any time to 483 people — a condition IIS officials presented themselves during an earlier meeting.
Responding to some residents’ comments that placing a mosque on the property takes away from the money that could have been generated in taxes if a commercial building were to be developed on the site, Steele pointed out that the board’s attorney has stated that the board cannot consider tax impacts when deciding whether to approve a use variance.
At the same time, “we have lots of property in this town that does not produce tax income,” said Steele, pointing to other houses of worship as well as Mercer County Park. “I don’t think this particular piece of property will bankrupt this town.”
Prior to board deliberations on the application, supporters and opponents pleaded their case with the board. Leigh Isleib, an East Windsor resident, told the board he and his wife co-chair social justice events with St. Anthony’s Church in Hightstown and invited the IIS members to be a part of the dialogue. The group has continued to meet to “continue building bridges of understanding.”
“Muslims are a good asset to the communities and should be able to worship in a mosque,” he said. “The people we have met have been most cordial.”
Zak Maniya, of West Windsor, said he has been living in West Windsor for 15 years and is a board member of IIS. He said he was “confident that the members of this board will do what’s best for the community.”
“To the skeptics, we will try our best to be worthy neighbors,” he said, adding that the definition of a neighbor is one who “smiles at you over the back fence but does not climb over.”
Added Maniya: “We will let our neighbors climb over that fence and join us every once in a while.”
Hina Ahmed, another West Windsor resident, and a 1999 graduate of High School South, said she remained in West Windsor because of the community’s tolerance, which are in line with the ideals at IIS. Since its inception 15 years ago, she has learned at IIS, taught there, and now she sends her children there.
But “we’ve made very little progress for ourselves and for our center,” she said. “Fifteen years ago, I sat on the floor and learned from my teachers. Now my kids sit on the floor and learn from their teachers.”
Constructing their own mosque is something “we’ve been thinking about for a long time, and we just want it to materialize,” Ahmed added.
Sabbir Rangwala, a West Windsor resident, said the site for the mosque on Old Trenton Road was zoned for light industrial use. “When residents moved in, they had to be ready for those uses,” he said. “I fail to see how a mosque could be a heavier use.”
Referencing comments residents made about activities that would create noise in the area, Rangwala said that churches have bells and hold weddings. And “they do cause parking problems during high holidays,” he said. “But somehow the bar for this mosque has been raised much higher.”
Opponents argued, however, that their concerns were not based on a religious argument.
“I wouldn’t want a synagogue or church next to me either,” said resident Norman Shapiro. “I think there are other spots this place can be built.”
He said his biggest problem with the application was the traffic it would generate. He said he lived in South Brunswick for 38 years before moving to West Windsor and that many times, the traffic on Route 1 would be heavy during high holidays. “Old Trenton Road is not Route 1,” he said.
Eugene Sersen said he regrets that it is a mosque that is being discussed but said he would be concerned about any house of worship adding a basketball court at the last minute, which could generate noise above township regulations. “The whistle of the referee and the excitement of the audience can have different levels of annoyance,” he said.
Zoning Board Attorney Ed Schmierer said Sersen’s comment “certainly is a comment that should be raised again if the applicant receives use variance and moves to the site plan” approval process.
“We will hear activity from a crowded mosque, especially in the winter, from cars warming up,” said resident Roslyn Friedman, who lives in Village Grande. She said that there are many accidents just up the road from the site on Old Trenton Road, with the intersection of Route 571. Old Trenton Road is the most direct route to Mercer County Community College, she added. “Don’t make our lovely area into a Manhattan 42nd Street because that’s what it’s going to turn into,” she said.
Other residents said IIS could find another location and that the township could generate valuable tax revenue if it leaves the site zoned for commercial use.
Schmierer explained to the board the process for determining whether a use meets the criteria for being “inherently beneficial.” In that explanation, he also noted that the board approved similar use variances for Congregation Beth Chaim and the Princeton Presbyterian Church located within the township. “In every instance, the church was an inherently beneficial use.”
While the Municipal Land Use Law does not specify houses of worship as inherently beneficial uses, “houses of worship under the case law have and are going to be deemed an inherently beneficial use,” said Schmierer.
In approving the application, the board imposed a number of conditions to which IIS had previously agreed, including that there be a maximum of 483 people at any time in the building; that they adhere to Department of Health regulations when running the medical clinics; that there be no day care on site other than allowing someone to watch children during religious services and education; and that IIS officials “self-police” the traffic during high holidays.
Schmierer said there had been case law that prevents the board from imposing a requirement that the mosque hire police officers to direct traffic. “But they can remember cops are available,” he added. In addition, Schmierer recommended the site plans be very similar to the concept plans shown during the use variance hearing.
Steele urged IIS to rethink the basketball court before coming back for site plan approval. That process will send the mosque before the Site Plan Review Advisory Board and then before the Zoning Board again.
Zoning Board member Curtis Hoberman asked whether the board could include a condition that limits the basement to storage use only, but Schmierer said that issue is part of the site plan process.
Shawki Salem, who was the subject of a letter by residents accusing him of being biased, said he has lived in West Windsor for 21 years since coming from Egypt. “I care about West Windsor,” he said. He said he did not feel the mosque would have a negative impact on the community, and he urged IIS members to reach out to its neighbors.
In approving the use variance, Zoning Board member Meg Chicco said the board is “conservative in that we are not going to do anything that is going to harm West Windsor.”