BRIDGEWATER, NJ – Despite concerns from residents about future planning and insufficient parking, the Bridgewater Township Planning Board unanimously approved an application Monday for an Al Falah Center mosque to be built on Route 202/206.
In December, the township approved a settlement with the Al Falah Center in regard to litigation concerning a proposed mosque on the former Redwood Inn site on Mountain Top Road.
The settlement agreement preserves the residential zoning on the Redwood Inn site, which was part of an ordinance approved in 2011 to remove houses of worship from sites in the township that do not front on a county, state or designated township road. In addition, the settlement settles all monetary claims related to the litigation.
In 2011, Al Falah sued the township after the ordinance was approved and while the application for a mosque was being heard by the planning board. Enacting the ordinance pushed the application to the zoning board for a variance to be on the Redwood Inn property.
The settlement allows Al Falah to build a mosque on a site on Route 202/206, rather than the former Redwood Inn property on Mountain Top Road.
Hearings for the new mosque site began in late August with testimony from the applicant’s engineer, and indicated that the plans have changed from the original Redwood Inn application to actually include two buildings on 10.85 acres, one for the worship center and another for a school.
The applicant presented a few revised plans at Monday’s meeting, first determining that instead of the originally proposed five minarets on the building, there will now only be four. In addition, the applicant plans to lower the height of them by 8 feet, from 78 feet high originally to 70 feet.
West Foothill Road resident Robert Kurz said that still sounds too high for the area. He said he believes there is nothing in the area that will be as visible to residents as the minarets high above the trees.
“If I asked you what your impression of 70, 80 feet is, we would all have different impressions,” he said. “If I’m sitting in my backyard, I’m going to see four towers over the trees. I am asking you to consider not the physical details, but the aesthetic value of the neighborhood.”
But of most concern to many residents in attendance was the parking, and changes suggested by the applicant to provide additional parking if the congregation were to grow large enough failed to comfort them.
The applicant had already provided testimony that it will see 282 parking spaces on the property, about 55 more than is required by township ordinance.
Mitch Ardman, engineer for the applicant, said they have added three parking stalls in the southwesterly corner of the property, as well as seven additional stalls along the easterly entrance, bringing the total number of spaces to 292 on the property.
In addition, the applicant provided information about overflow parking that could be done on the proposed soccer field, if needed.
“It could fit 180 additional parking spaces on the soccer field,” Ardman said. “Access would be through the end of the existing parking lot, and a driveway would come down and people could park there.”
Lloyd Tubman, attorney for the applicant, emphasized that they are not currently proposing paving over the soccer field, just that if it were to ever become necessary because of the congregation growing, that is an option they have.
“We would have to come back for a preliminary site plan if we wanted to do that parking lot,” she said. “We are merely demonstrating the ability to provide banked parking, it would require a separate supplemental amendment. We are not doing that now.”
Planning board attorney Thomas Collins said the applicant has offered a condition with the application that there will be no parking on streets in the neighborhood, on Route 202/206, on the nearby Woodmont property, or any other adjacent properties.
“This would be a condition for the site plan, and would trigger moving to more than one worship service on the same day, and, if that didn’t work, they could go to an offsite location for more parking,” he said.
Tubman said that if services on the holidays attracted more people and vehicles than the applicant has currently accounted for, they would move to hold a second service or rent an offsite space for the service before even considering the option of paving over the soccer field for more parking.
Traffic engineer Gary Dean also recounted the amount of parking accounted for in terms of the proposed school, although he cited that schools are omitted from the town’s ordinance on parking requirements. According to calculations, 23 parking spaces are required for the elementary school component, 12 for middle school and 31 for the high school.
That’s a total requirement of 291 spaces for the property, Dean said, and the applicant is providing 292.
“I hope you can see that sufficient parking will be included on the site,” he said. “Recognizing the condition that has been offered that when the mosque is at peak worship capacity, the school would not be in session, we certainly have demonstrated the adequacy of parking.”
But residents expressed concerns about whether the site will accommodate changes in the future, and whether the applicant has even considered that.
“The hope is that if this becomes a nice place, the people would come,” Kurz said. “We’re not discussing what will happen today, you’re planning what’s happening in five years or 10 years.”
“They are planning 292 spaces, but what about in 10 years?” he added. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”
Kurz questioned when they are going to make the contingency plans if more vehicles show up than the parking spaces can accommodate.
“Let’s make those plans now,” he said. “There should be a concession made now that someone is on hand to handle the overflow. We have to plan in advance.”
Planning board member Ron Charles said he would like to see the applicant have that kind of plan in place for the first holiday they host at the mosque so they are not taken by surprise.
“I think it would make sense prior to the first big holiday to have a plan in place,” he said.
Mayor Dan Hayes said he would be comfortable with a plan being in place for the first holiday, with an evaluation scheduled after that.
“I think that that is something that could be readily agreed to,” he said. “It’s a living plan. It is not easy to turn someone away, so this is the plan now.”
“And this will be a living arrangement, changing as needed,” Charles added.
Charles also requested that Al Falah Center consider saying there will be no use of the soccer field on Sundays, so as to accommodate residents concerned about noise and lights on the weekend.
Tubman said the board of the Al Falah Center will discuss that.
Traffic also remained a concern for residents at the hearing.
“We are going to be putting more traffic on that street,” Kurz said. “People are speeding to go over the rise there, and as they do, they come to the other side and now we are going to be putting traffic making left turns. One car can cause an accident.”
West Foothill Road resident Chris Roberts agreed about the traffic, and questioned whether this would still be a problem if the mosque were built at the originally proposed location on Mountain Top Road.
“I read that if Al Falah is not approved by the township, it automatically goes back to the Redwood Inn site,” he said. “This split the town. I have friends who didn’t want to come to support us because they knew that if it wasn’t approved, it goes back to the Redwood Inn.”
“This is going to cause traffic nightmares,” he added. “At the Redwood Inn, we wouldn’t have any of that.”
The board unanimously approved the building of the mosque and school.