NORWALK, Conn. – Turn down the mosque. That is what Norwalk's plan review committee decided Wednesday evening to recommend to the Zoning Commission when it votes on the controversial application.
Although the committee is made up of only three members of the Zoning Commission, all seven commissioners attended and participated in the discussion. Only one spoke in favor of approving the application put forward by Al Madany Islamic Center to build a mosque at 127 Fillow St., a residential neighborhood in Norwalk.
Farhan Memon, spokesman for the Islamic Center, said afterward the commissioners were poorly informed by Norwalk city staff. He cited a 1979 state Supreme Court decision and said the matter will likely wind up in court.
"I think that we will prevail when we appeal what seems now to be a denial and that we would invoke federal legislation that's on the books to defend our civil rights to have a place of worship," he said.
Committee members Jill Jacobsen, James White and Emily Wilson and their fellow zoning commission members considered three options regarding the application: approve it, deny it or approve it with modifications. They sat at a conference table in a second floor room of City Hall filled past capacity with members of Keep 127 Fillow St. residential and members of the Islamic Center, who sat and listened quietly.
The commission should recommend approving part of the application, allowing the building of the prayer hall but not the large building considered accessory usage in the application, Commissioner Adam Blank said. Joe Santo, chairman of the commission, said he could not remember an application that would be modified as much as the Islamic Center's application would be if the commission went in that direction.
Blank was the only one in favor of that option.
The conversation then moved to the option of approving the application. It became a debate, primarily between Blank and Nathan Sumpter, about whether the large two-story building planned for behind the prayer center was accessory use or a community center. Blank said the building would contain a gymnasium, a kitchen, a room for counseling and classrooms, which in his mind made it a community center.
"It's a gymnasium the way I saw it," Sumpter said. "A mosque with a gymnasium."
Santo and others said they had a problem with the traffic report presented by Michael Galante on behalf of the mosque, because it did not estimate the amount of parking needed for the accessory use. They said they had asked Galante several times about the issue and were dissatisfied that he had no answer.
Sumpter was the only person who wanted to vote to approve the mosque. Finally, White, Wilson and Jacobsen voted unanimously to recommend that the application be denied.
The commission will vote on the resolution recommended by the committee June 6 in Concert Hall.
White predicted during the discussion that the matter will go to court after the vote.
"I'm very disappointed with this evening's outcome," Memon said afterward. "This is a legal issue and the law is clear that the standards of one applies to all other construction. The standards applied to the building of religious facilities are different. What this commission and staff haven't done is to discuss what those standards are. This is a commission that is very well versed in condo development and commercial building. It's not a commission that is well versed in the law regarding construction of churches and other religious facilities."
Correction made 4:30 p.m. Thursday