NORWALK, Conn. Syed Ali says he has been working for three years to create a religious home for his community in Norwalk, but things are not looking good.
The zoning commission's plan review committee recommended last week the commission turn down Ali's plans for a mosque at 127 Fillow St.
"I am so surprised," the architect said. "The commission will be making a decision based on their misunderstanding."
Ali and Farhan Memom, spokesperson for Al Madany Islamic Center, say commission members were poorly informed by the staff members who advise them.
"The commission was repeatedly wrong on the facts tonight and repeatedly wrong on the law," Memon said Wednesday. "I'm certainly not in a position to say whether we're going to take this to court or not, I would at this point strongly recommend to my community that we do pursue legal action against the city of Norwalk if it chooses to deny this application."
Commission members objected to the large building planned for behind the prayer hall and the density that would result on the 1.5 acre property. Adam Blank wondered repeatedly why the combined gymnasium and classroom space, which includes a kitchen, was defined as accessory use, when it was much bigger than the 3,000-square-foot prayer hall.
At one point, they asked staff member Michael Green what the definition of accessory use was in Norwalk zoning regulations. "We don't have a definition," Greene said. "We go with Webster's."
"The commission staff should know what an accessory use is," Memom said. "It's not the Webster's Dictionary. The Webster's Dictionary is not a legal document. A legal document is the Supreme Court of Connecticut."
He was referring to a 1979 Supreme Court of Connecticut ruling, Beit Havurah vs. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Norfolk . "It's a legal definition that's been around since 1979," he said. "It's referred to by other courts. You're allowed to recreate in a hall, you're allowed to have dinners in a hall, you're allowed to have classrooms in a hall. You're allowed to have gatherings in a hall. All of those, no matter how big or small they are, are accessory uses to a religious facility. That religious facility can be 3,000 square feet and the hall can be 20,000 square feet. It doesn't matter."
Commission members suspect the 89 parking spaces planned for the mosque are inadequate because the use of the accessory building is not accounted for in the calculation used to determine how much parking is needed.
"We kept telling them these two buildings will not be used at the same time," Ali said.
Zoning regulations do not require parking be provided for accessory use. Therefore the questions on what accessory usage is.
Commissioner Adam Blank wanted to approve the application just for the hall, and deny the larger building.
"In practical terms, how do you approve half a building?" asked Commissioner Emily Wilson. "It's not two separate buildings. It's one integrated structure."
That was more evidence of misinformation, Memom said.
"It's a completely separate building, freestanding," he said. "So when the commissioner, respectfully, said you can't separate them, she was wrong. I don't know why. The model was right in front of her, you can see it's two separate structures. I don't know why she thought it was one structure."
Commissioner Mike Mushak said he had no problem with the density of the project, as it was the same as the condos across the street. The traffic problems would be different, though, he said.
The 90-foot-tall minaret would not be violating the spirit of the neighborhood, he said, as there are other structures that are that tall. He referred to electric towers perched on Steppingstone Road.
He agreed the application met the zoning regulations, but it could be turned down under the terms of a special permit. "I feel sorry for them," he said. Other commissioners agreed.
Memom said they don't understand federal law.
"The federal law provides that when discussing zoning regarding a religious building that the commission cannot use arbitrary standards," he said. "Subjectivity is by its nature an arbitrary standard. ... I could foresee us appealing the decision, basically on the grounds that the decision was arbitrary and capricious and they overlooked the federal legislation that requires them to treat us as they would any other secular building. Any other secular building on that property would comply with the city's rules as promulgated and we do."
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