NORWALK, Conn. – The traffic study in support of a proposed Norwalk mosque was the first thing to come under fire Thursday night in a debate among those deciding its fate.
"The traffic study only gives us counts for the prayer hall," said Joe Santo, chairman of the Zoning Commission. "It doesn't give us counts for the gym and the other part. They claim that they're not going to use them together, but I don't see how we can control that."
The commission's plan Review Committee plowed through many other issues before getting to Al Madany Islamic Center's mosque planned for 127 Fillow St. at about 9 p.m. More than 30 people packed into the small conference room, most of them from the Fillow Street area. Their attorney, Marc Grenier, also watched.
Commissioner Nathan Sumpter argued for the mosque, while Santo, James Wilson and others steadfastly expressed skepticism about the parking planned for the facility and the impact on the area. Adam Blank said he might vote to approve the prayer hall but not the large building planned as a community center, if that was possible. Mike Mushak said he wanted to vote for the mosque but couldn't get past the parking and traffic issues.
Members said the zoning regulations need to be rewritten but agreed they couldn't do that while this application is pending.
"I don't see that the mosque and the rec center as being not allowed because of the regulation that we have on the books," Sumpter said. "Even with leaving the house there it does fit in our zoning regulations, even with the parking."
The mosque would become a destination "because it's beautiful," Blank said. Others agreed.
"We don't leave our church to go to another church simply because it's a new church," Sumpter said. "The reason that we go is because that's our church. That's where we attend our services."
The model for the mosque presented a false impression, Mushak said. It made it looked bigger than it is, he said, and compared the size of the dome to a trampoline. The red house would fit on the stage of Concert Hall and the rest of the facility would fit in the seating area of the hall. "People are reacting to the scale which inherently is scary, because of the red house," he said, pointing out that the red house is small.
The traffic study presented by Michale Galante in support of the mosque was misleading, Blank said, because it didn't allow for people entering the parking lot and then leaving if there were no spaces. That it was based on the people praying in the space rented by the center made it invalid, he said, because the mosque would be built in part to allow space for women and children at the prayer services.
Blank said the description of the recreation area as accessory use was misleading, as the prayer hall accounts for 3,000 square feet and the rest of the space is 40,000 square feet. But he agreed that the zoning regulations do not require an allowance for parking for the accessory use.
"They basically are following all of the rules based on our code with this application," Mushak said. "We have the extra – you can call it a 'smell test' or whatever you want to call it – but it's the special permit that allows us to look at the context, etc. Which is what we're doing. I think everybody is making good points, but I just want to highlight that this whole process wouldn't have happened if the zoning code had provisions in it for this type of application. In the future, I think we do need to address that."
"The plan meets the regulations," Sumpter said. "We need to go with what we have realizing that it's OK because it's in the regulations."
The panel will meet again June 14 and consider which resolution to send to the entire commission for a vote. Staff member Michael Greene said he would write three, based on the comments. One would approve the mosque, one would deny it and the third would approve it with modifications.
The "drop dead" date for a decision is June 29, Santo said. The commission expects to make a decision at its June 20 meeting in Concert Hall.