Both sides in the debate over the proposed New Castle mosque came in large numbers to the first hearing for the building's environmental review.
The Zoning Board of Appeals held the Wednesday public hearing, which lasted nearly three hours in an overflowing town hall auditorium. During that time, there were several recurring themes on display.
Members of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society, which is seeking to build the 24,690-square-foot structure in the town's West End section, made passionate pleas for a larger space. They described their current Thornwood facility as being too small, lacking enough parking and unable to support major activities. Examples of the later problem included separate educational services being held near Mount Kisco and hotel space being needed for holiday events.
Opponents, comprised of folks who live near the near site, are worried about the environmental impacts. They fear increased traffic, the risk of a major septic failure, noise and lighting pollution, among their issues.
The hearing, triggered due to the release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), is for a review that is connected to the zoning board's eventual decision on whether to grant a special permit for the building. Although the property, an 8.33-acre site at 130 Pinesbridge Rd., is zoned for residential usage that also permits places of worship, it is subject to getting the permit.
The DEIS was approved by the zoning board at its May meeting, after having gone through three revisions since 2009. UWMS purchased the property in 2004 and proposed the building in 2006.
A Sense of Community and Belonging Desired By Backers
“It is very difficult to accommodate our members and provide more services," said Sana Ali, who lives near Chappaqua and is a graduate.
Saaniya Contrator, a Greeley alum who lives in Mount Pleasant's Chappaqua school district section, would like to see a place that provides a similar religious experience to her Christian and Jewish peers.
“I remember attending numerous bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations and witnessing religious milestones of my friends," she said. "A Muslim center in my community would allow me to show the friends I’ve had since to witness my religious milestones.”
Meryem Katircioğlu, a Yorktown resident and UWMS member, would like to see stable community center so they can move out of their “cramped facility, which isn’t working out for us right now.”
Members also felt that the site is more convenient geographically.
Hena Siddiqi, a Briarcliff Manor resident, described how she couldn't enroll her son in an Islamic summer educational program in Mount Vernon due to it being too far away when his parents would be working.
“It’s impossible to have him show up there at 8:45 in the morning during rush hour traffic, only to be picked up at 3 p.m.”
Members and supporters also touched upon a broader theme of religious inclusiveness, noting their communitie ties and outreach.
To that end, clergy from churches and synagogues in the region showed up in solidarity.
Rev. Tom Lenhart, of the , came on behalf of the Chappaqua Interfaith Council, which UWMS is also a member of, in support of the mosque.
“The society has been a wonderfully loyal and stalwart and supportive member of the council and has worked assiduously for interfaith relationships in this community," he said. "Our friends at the interfaith council are our neighbors and many of their children go to our schools.”
Harry Cohen, president of the board for , also described their friendship with UWMS, and offered its support for the mosque.
“We have been very fortunate to get to know the members of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society over the past seven years," he said. "We have broken bread together, we have studied our respective sacred texts together through an ongoing interfaith dialogue.”
Cohen, who noted the significant land use review that the temple went through to build its large expansion - the addition was dedicated last November - urged the zoning board to treat UWMS as they were treated.
“Without them, this would be a poorer community, and if they are forced to move outside of this immediate area, our area will be greatly, negatively impacted by that decision," said Steve Phillips, pastor for
Rabbi Mark Semeth from the described the role of UWMS in an interfaith group called , which works on charitable relief.He also described how they have partnered with his synagogue for Thanksgiving and its involvement in the village's Memorial Day parade.
West Enders Fear Site is Unsuitable & Will Change Area Character
Neighbors of the proposal were just as passionate in their opposition, whether to the choice of the site, its scale or both.
Sara Brewster, a longtime resident who spoke on behalf of the group West End Neighborhood Taxpayers (WENT), argued against it due to the scale.
“While we understand that places of worship can be permitted in a residential zone, we believe a building of almost 25,000 square feet, with 170 parking spaces and a probability of 650 people in attendance on some occasions, would overwhelm the site and its surroundings.”
Brewster also argued that the proposal goes against the intent of the town's master plan, which emphasizes preserving rural character for New Castle's outlying areas and keeping higher-density uses closer to the Chappaqua and Millwood hamlets.
UWMS attorney Meredith Black said that the mosque will have 170 parking spaces along with a plan for managing more vehicles - the projection is up to 217 during two major holidays - through valet and tandem parking. Figures show that as many as 650 people could be at the site during major holidays.
Several West Enders argued that the the sites immediate surroundings - it's at the intersection of Pinesbridge and Hoags Cross Roads - are not capable of taking on more traffic, especially the later street.
Ronald Steinvurzel, a Hoags Cross resident, explained that it is too narrow for cars to pass each other without slowing down. He also said that he digs cars out every winter.
“Look at me. I’m going to be digging your cars out if this goes forward. I’m the guy.”
Steinvurzel also warned about the magnitude of the traffic data in the DEIS, which predicts vehicle trips in the 100-300 daily range, depending on the time of the week.
“It will crush us," he said.
One concern raised was that the Hoags Cross area has already become overburdened, or could become even more so, due to the recent installation of two athletic fields at nearby Amsterdam Park, which generated
Robyn Field, a Pinesbridge resident and neighbor of the property, felt that DEIS traffic data is outdated and that it predates Amsterdam's athletic use impact. She called for a new traffic study to be done as a result.
“Our neighborhood is a sanctuary, and I do believe that is to be respected as much as their desire to have a sanctuary for themselves," she said.
For several West Enders, the mosque is looked at as being the latest of big projects in their area that go against the residential character. These included the Hudson Hills golf course, a water tower, Amsterdam's fields and the pending
Among them was Gregg Sanzari. While he said that he would like to see them in New Castle, he felt that the proposed site is not the right one,.
“I just don’t know if this is the proper location in this little neighborhood, that over the past five to 10 years has really taken it on the chin. And with the cell phone tower they’re going to take it on the chin again.”
Jason Hoffman, president of the Stillwater Association - it is a homeowners' group for several residents - told non-resident members that he was more familiar with the area's issues.
“It was so very nice to hear people from Yorktown Heights, Yorktown, Pleasantville, Briarcliff, Somers, come and talk about this facility. Welcome to our town hall," he said. "I’ve been here – I can’t tell you how many times over the past several years – to speak of issues that you’re not familiar with: the golf course, the cell phone tower, the soccer fields.”
Hoffman raised a tension that has been present in town for a long time: A feeling among West End residents that their region takes a back seat to Chappaqua's interests.
“It’s like the arm pit of New Castle," referencing how he feels his part of town has been treated in general.
Other concerns raised from residents ranged from whether UWMS will have septic failure, the potential for increased noise due to traffic volumes, tree removal and its related impact on runoff.
Hussein Elzoghby, who is a UWMS member, gave a rebuttal to environmental concerns. He argued that the mosque would be comparable in size to other religious institutions in New Castle, including Temple Beth El (at roughly 30,000 square feet) and Chappaqua's Congregational church (at about 19,000 square feet).
“It is not too big.”
Elzoghby noted that the two-story building's visual scale is fine, with only one story visible from the road. He also said that the septic system complies with regulations and will have 100-percent redundancy, that the building's presence in a wetlands buffer will be offset with mitigation, and that on-site treatment will be in place for stormwater.
“I am acutely aware of the concerns of my neighbors. I am a neighbor myself," said Ali Javed, who chairs the UWMS board and lives in the Chappaqua schools section of Mount Pleasant.
Javed talked about how there has been outreach locally on behalf of UWMS, and that concerns with merit would be addressed.
What to Do Next?
The zoning board is continuing the public hearing, with the next date set for its July 25 meeting. It also voted to refer the DEIS to the planning board, which will give an advisory opinion and eventually will have to decide whether to approve permits connected to work on the site.
According to the timeline given at the hearing, once the public hearing phase of the DEIS ends, UWMS will respond in an final environmental impact statement (FEIS). That statement will go through its own scrutiny, and be followed by a statement of findings by the zoning board that would assess the project's impact. After the environmental review is complete, the board will decide on whether to grant the special permit.
To read the DEIS, click here.