There appeared to be a heightened sense of irritation at the second public hearing for the Upper Westchester Muslim Society's proposed mosque for New Castle's West End.
Although turnout on Wednesday was lower meeting - the ZBA held the hearings for the building's environmental review - frustration on both sides seemed to escalate. West End residents, who live near the proposed 8.33-acre site at 130 Pinesbridge Rd., reiterated their opposition rhetoric, while UWMS members responded.
Ronald Steinvurzel, who lives on nearby Hoags Cross Road, raised the possibility of the matter heading to court if the zoning board denies a special permit for the mosque, with UWMS filing a lawsuit against the town. The statute he referred to is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
“But there is a all-too present tone throughout this application that RLUIPA is hanging in the rear of this room, waiting for a lawsuit to be filed should the applicant not be given what they want, which is to do on this piece of property, that which absolutely nobody else on the planet is allowed to do,” Steinvurzel said, adding that is to infringe on the wetlands and in creating traffic impacts.
Steinvurzel was even resigned to the idea of taking RLUIPA to the United State Supreme Court in a challenge to the law arising from such a scenario.
“This board should not shy away from that fight. That is a good fight to have.”
West End resident David Gray-Schofield joined in this concern.
“The truth is, the Town of New Castle, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board are rightfully concerned that the applicant no doubt stands ready to force the issue by filing a RLUIPA suit if the special use permit is not granted. In some circles, this might be referred to as blackmail."
Dr. Ali Javed, chair of the UWMS board, denied that RLUIPA is an issue.
“We never talked about RLUIPA," he said in a rebuttal statement.
Inter-Town, and Intra-Town, Relations
Some residents raised the matter of UWMS after out-of-town congregants.
“We are frankly frightened of being completely overwhelmed by a huge and inappropriate large-scale development by a non-taxpaying organization consisting of individuals who do not live anywhere near this site or in our community," said Gray-Schofield.
Resident Susan West said that she objected to the project on a basis that the community it would serve “is not the community where I live.”
Such statements offended UWMS members, who noted that because of Westchester County's relatively small Muslim population, having people from multiple towns attend is necessary.
“Yes, not 100 percent of our congregants are in the Town of New Castle, but not 100 percent of the townships in Westchester have a mosque, either," said Anees Shaikh, a Yorktown resident who handles UWMS' daily activites. He also noted that a number of its congregants are New Castle residents.
Shaikh also stated: “So please don’t insult me by saying this ‘I don’t belong in the Town of New Castle because I live in Yorktown.’ This is a central location, and last I checked, I don’t need an identity card to come into the Town of New Castle and worship.”
“There’s no way we can build a center and sustain it by a couple of dozen families," said Aamir Mumtaz, a Mount Pleasant resident and UWMS member.
Also on display was an intra-town frustration that some West End residents feel with Chappaqua, a belief that their section of New Castle is treated as second class compared to the hamlet.
“The hamlet and school district of Chappaqua, three miles from this site, is not our community," said Gray-Schofield. "Every single speaker at the last meeting, when they talked about being part of the community always spoke very fondly of Chappaqua.”
“There is a big difference for the people that live in New Castle that go to the Chappaqua schools and the Ossining schools," said West End resident Janet Brand. "We have been living in the Ossining school district. We have basically been considered by the people in Ossining the rich side of Ossining, but the poor side of New Castle."
Bigger Mosque is Essential, UWMS Argues
For UWMS, coming to New Castle is a matter of need. UWMS members, who worship in a cramped rental space in Thornwood, argue that the mosque, which is 24,690-square-foot, is needed because they can't accomodate all of their needs and activities now.
Shaikh noted that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the current review of the building takes needs into account. He also explained that UWMS did a 3-year search for a site and that it is centrally located.
Safeya Arefin, an Ossining village resident and UWMS member, recalled growing up locally and not having a mosque near by.
“The closest mosque was 30 minutes away," she said, noting that folks live in the area and pay taxes, too.
Steinvurzel, in his remarks early in the hearing, was not sympathetic. He told UWMS to rent a bigger place.
"Buy a piece of property that doesn’t present all the same limitations and problems that this piece of property does.”
Steinvurzel believes that UWMS is pursuing the site now because of how much money they have spent to date on it.
“This is about money. This is about having purchased the property, having been entrenched with the costs of engineering and design and attorneys’ fees, and now they don’t want to look back. They’re too deep into it.”
Character Will Change for the Worse, Residents Argue
For many West Enders at the hearing, the mosque would be an affront to their neighborhood's bucolic environmental; folks gave anecdotes of this, including walking dogs, peace and quiet, and safe playing for kids. Instead, residents envision their streets being overrun with too many vehicles, a risk of septic system failure, and hydraulogy and wetlands disruptions, among other environmental fears.
“I moved there because It was a quiet residential area, and I just see this turning the whole neighborhood on its head and, and just changing it completely," said West.
Jennifer Scopes said, “The additional traffic on our roads, which access the proposed mosque, takes the description of the neighborhood just given to you, and turns it into a hazard for all the residents in the neighborhood.”
Jason Hoffman, president of the Stillwater Association, a homeowners' group for several residents near the site, gave a recap for the mosque. At it, members were surprised to learn that there would be times of the year beyond two holidays - they are Eid-ul-Fitr and Eil-ul-Adha - in which there would be above-average traffic. An opponent of the proposal, Hoffman expressed sympathy with the concern from planning board members about the issue.
Some UWMS members described fears expressed as exaggerations.
“Now, our neighbors do a lot to exaggerate the impact of this property. This is not a mall, this is not a sports arena," said Hasan Ali, who grew up in Chappaqua and lives in the area. He cited an example of one person at the hearing who stated that Ramadan - it is - runs for 60 days, when in fact it is 30. Ali was also offended by the suggestion that UWMS look elsewhere for property, and emphasized that they are responsive to the environmental concerns.
Javed, the UWMS chair, detected a change in tone from the June meeting.
“It seems, I have this feeling sitting here. Last time I did not notice it. There is some acrimony.”
He added: “I mean, come on, we always thought we would work together as neighbors. If there is so much polarization, and then once it is polarized, it goes on to breed, and that is what I noticed today.”
After getting comments, the zoning board voted to close the public hearing but continue to accept written comments for the DEIS until Aug. 24. In the meantime, the planning board and architectural review boards will have advisory discussions about the proposal. After the comment period closes, UWMS is expected to give the town a list of questions about substantive matters for the project. Eventually, then will return with a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) to respond to every major question and concern about the project.