Earlier this year, an application was being heard by Bayonne’s Zoning Board for a vacant former warehouse property at 109 East 24th Street. But while that description seems benign enough, the proposal called for the property’s transformation into a mosque and quickly found itself mired in some community opposition.
The Bayonne Muslims currently operate prayer services out of the basement of the St. Henry’s School and were looking to build a more permanent home in the Peninsula City. The group drew up plans for a new mosque and community center that would have spanned 23,000 square feet.
Due to a zoning consideration as a “conditionally permitted use” at the property, buildings on the residentially-zoned land needed to be set back 30 feet from the property lines. A 5-foot visual buffer also needed to be established between adjacent properties. Because of those restrictions, the Bayonne Muslims were seeing two variances from the Zoning Board.
A heated and at times divisive discussion culminated in the Board denying the application in March. Then last month, the Bayonne Muslims filed a Federal lawsuit over the rejection, alleging that three of the Zoning Board’s dissenting votes did not cite sufficient evidence of testimony related to the setback and buffer issues they were requesting variances for.
The Department of Justice announced shortly after the lawsuit’s filing that they have launched their own investigation into the matter. But what is to become of the plan? A recent lawsuit filed in a suburban New Jersey town over a similar denial provides some clues, but also has some differences.
A plan first proposed in 2011 by The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque on four acres of land in Bernards Township was also voted down last January. But while the society’s proposal was still before the board, the township committee passed an ordinance that changed the zoning rules for houses of worship.
The new regulations dictated minimum lot size for houses of worship be six acres and placed additional increases on minimum parking requirements. The society filed a lawsuit over the Bernards denial, arguing in court documents that the town’s new conditions were “hard or impossible-to-meet” and part of “an effort to ensure the society would never be able to build a mosque.”
Bernards ended up settling the case, agreeing to pay the group $3.25 million and will let them build their mosque with the old requirements. But the obvious difference between this case and the one unfolding in Bayonne is that Bayonne didn’t modify their zoning rules while debating the mosque plan, so that likely won’t be a future argument made in a courtroom.
However, the Federal Judge in the Bernards case ruled that the town “discriminated against the group by requiring it to provide more parking for its proposed mosque than other places of worship in the town,” which could create an issue for Bayonne.
During the final vote, Bayonne’s Zoning Board Chairman Mark Urban commented on issues related to parking despite the application not needing additional spaces per zoning. “There is definitely not parking in the area to handle all of what this applicant wants to bring,” Urban said, according to the meeting’s transcript.
The Bayonne Muslims’ lawsuit also claims that two other Board members, Edoardo Ferrante and Louis Lombardi, “cited their own opinions as to whether or not the community center belonged in the neighborhood” when explaining their “no” votes. Bayonne officially declined to comment on the suit, but it looks like a local version of the freedom of religion debate will be playing out before our eyes over the next year or so.