NORWALK, Conn. – Approving a proposal to put a mosque in a Norwalk neighborhood would be "the right thing and send a positive message about this wonderful and diverse city," according to the lawyer arguing on its behalf.
Marc Grenier, attorney for those who oppose the application, has given Norwalk's Zoning Commission other advice. "The special permit criteria allows you to look at this in total, in this particular case, this size lot, 27,000 square foot proposed use on 1.5 acres," said Grenier, who represents the Stone Gate and Fillow Ridge Condominiums.
The Zoning Commission's plan review committee will begin deliberating Thursday on a controversial proposal to allow a mosque at 127 Fillow St. When they meet, the members will weigh the facts presented in three public hearings.
John Santo, chairman of the commission, has said the matter will be decided strictly by zoning regulations. John Fallon, lawyer for Al Madany Islamic Center, has made a case that the religious aspect cannot be ignored.
"In my opinion the denial of this application would constitute a substantial burden to this congregation of Norwalk citizens worshiping without a house of worship in this community since 1999," he said at the final hearing. "It would in fact deprive them after these many years of their own religious home, one that complies with the regulations that you promulgate and gives them a place to worship and gather together for religious services, prayers and programs."
Two speakers in the previous hearing suggested the members of Al Madany Islamic Center use the empty Methodist church at North Water Street and West Avenue. Fallon said that wasn't an option. "They put a bid in," he said. "It was rejected. So there is no feasible alternative for this congregation. They want to have, as Norwalk Muslims, a house of worship in their community. And they have been looking for four years, and there is nothing else here."
Santo put his rejection of that assertion into the public record at the close of the last hearing. "Just because a person cannot afford to buy a piece of property, I don't think that fits into our discussions here," he said.
Every Norwalk church has "grown incrementally" over the years, Santo said, while Al Madany Islamic Center plans to build a massive facility all at once. "That's a consideration that's in my mind," he said.
The gym is also an issue, because opponents say it indicates that the parking planned is inadequate. Commissioner Adam Blank asked about the gymnasium at the final hearing, drawing applause from the crowd. Fallon's reply also drew applause.
"It's going to be used like multipurpose facilities in numerous houses of worship around the city and around the state," Fallon said. "They will be used periodically for social events of the congregation. It may be used periodically for recreational activities of the youth of the congregation. Nothing strange about it. I grew up in a Catholic school gym."
In a follow-up question, Fallon admitted that he knew of no mosques with gymnasiums.
The formula used to determine the mosque's capacity has been a focus for Commissioner Mike Mushak. The prayer hall's capacity is estimated at 435 people, using fire department equations that allow for 7 square feet per person. That estimation is used to determine parking needs and has been used in reference to expected traffic.
"When we are talking about capacity numbers, I think we do need to take into consideration the unique worship service that doesn't have seats," Mushak said. "It has prayer halls."
The commission has 65 days from the close of the last hearing on April 25 to make a decision. There is no set timetable for construction if the mosque were approved. Members of Al Madany Islamic Center say fundraising will begin once approval is secured. They said they couldn't raise money for something that might happen.