The Bayonne Zoning Board held its final meeting and public hearing on Monday, March 6 where it rejected an application for bulk variance relief by Bayonne Muslims, a local religious organization. Four commissioners voted in favor, while three voted against, but the ordinance required five votes in favor to pass. The group was hoping to convert a warehouse on 109 East 24th Street into a Muslim Community Center, a plan opposed by some residents of the East Side neighborhood.
The group was seeking land use variances in required parking spaces, in curb width, and a buffer zone. The last zoning board meeting, which was adjourned due to length, heard from the traffic engineer who testified that the neighborhood can sufficiently accommodate the expected increase in traffic and on-street parking demand.
Zoning Board Chairman Mark Urban, however, disagreed in the end. After a five-hour hearing,he and three other commissioners voted against issuing a variance for “zoning reasons.”
Urban said that the hearing’s frequent focus on religion was misplaced, and he considers most heavily whether the mosque can “fit in this spot.”
“And it is my opinion that it cannot fit,” said Urban. Looking to the applicants, he said, “I really do hope that if it doesn’t get passed, that you are submitting an application for another location. But this little dead end street is not suited.”
The “fit” of the Muslim Community Center was called into question throughout the night.
No neighbors of the project spoke favorably of it. “It doesn’t belong,” “quality of life,” and “integrity of the neighborhood,” were common refrains against the project. Regardless of whether or not a proper place of worship is available for Muslims in Bayonne, Muslims will remain in Bayonne, as Muslim residents said at various points in the meeting, “We’re here to stay.”
Since the applicant’s first meeting in January of 2016, opponents could not come around to the idea of a mosque in their neighborhood.
Some opponents who spoke on Monday claimed that their arguments were not based on prejudice before saying something overtly prejudice.
One opponent suggested that the head of the Bayonne Muslims was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, while another suggested Muslim people are prejudiced themselves, while others cited their Muslim doctors and friends as evidence of their impartiality. Some raised concerns over whether the applicant would comply with occupant capacity rules and speculated as to how many people may be attending the mosque from outside of Bayonne.
One woman went so far as to cite passages from the Quran to assert that Islam is a violent religion. She referred to Islam as a “so-called” religion. After minutes of her tirade and audience members growing noticeably disturbed, zoning board commissioners finally asked her to sit. “This is unacceptable,” said one commissioner.
Consistent with behavior zoning board commissioners deemed “ugly,” one group of East Side residents before the meeting attempted to disrupt a group of attendees participating in a Muslim prayer by reciting a Christian prayer.
“I’m not here because I’m a bigot, I’m here because I care about people,” said Kathy Smith, who cautioned against asbestos on the site as a result of the building’s industrial history. “We don’t oppose it because it’s a mosque; we oppose it because of the conditions in the neighborhood.”
Melanie Flora, whose property borders the site, is opposed primarily to the buffer zone variance. She believes the center would bring with it too much noise and traffic, “like having a Shop Rite in my backyard.” She said the presence of a mosque would decrease property values and disrupt her “peace and serenity.”
Traffic concerns are especially compounded by a recently approved six-story, 189-unit apartment building to go across the street, which multiple residents cited alongside their concerns of overcrowding. The original mosque application asked for an occupant capacity of 216 at any given time, but that number was reduced in revised application to be 135 by splitting prayer sessions.
“We don’t oppose it because it’s a mosque; we oppose it because of the conditions in the neighborhood.” – Kathy Smith
The “other” point of view
Muslim residents in Bayonne say they simply want a place of their own in which to worship. And when enough people debate their “fit,” and tell them they do not belong, it’s easy to begin to feel discriminated against.
“I think a lot of this is for families like mine who have made a home in Bayonne for their families,” said Soraya Amin, who attended Bayonne High School.“And they want a proper place to worship. Not the basement of a church, but a place they can call their own. We just want the same rights as our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters already enjoy tenfold because there are several places where they can worship here.”
In response to concerns over how a mosque would affect the daily lives of neighbors, Dina Sayedahmed said, “Think about how it affects our daily lives when we are told that we cannot build a community center in our hometown.”
“It seems like zoning has been addressed,” said Yalma Almas. “I don’t know that we can ignore the elephant in the room that there is a non-zoning problem on the East Side or among anyone who detracts from this.”
It was not only Almas who felt prejudice weighing on the community. Isiah Otero, 15, said, “I’m not proud to live in Bayonne. We really had to have a meeting on whether or not to build a mosque? You guys say it’s just over parking, but there’s no parking on my block either.”
“It’s not just one thing,” said Joe Wisniewski, who was briefly removed from the meeting at one point for causing a disturbance. “It’s the parking, it’s the buffer zone. Why should we have to get our neighborhood ruined? If they found a different area…nobody would have said anything.”
After the meeting, Waheid Akbar, President of the Bayonne Muslims, said, “I’m very disappointed. I thought we would have had a positive result.” Members of the Muslim community looked defeated, but said they would seek other properties in Bayonne. “We’re going to sit down with our lawyers and community members and come up with a plan on how to move forward.”
The ruling can be appealed in Superior Court. Similar proposals for houses of worship have gone this route. The Town of Bernardsvillewas sued by the U.S. Justice Department in November for denying a similar proposed mosque. Another building in Yonkers was due to be converted into a mosque last year until a group of residents successfully had the building designated a historic landmark. That case is currently making its way through the courts.
Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti expects Bayonne Muslims to seek an appeal. He and Mayor James Davis recognize the community need for a mosque and denounced the behaviors displayed at the meeting.
“As a lifelong resident of Bayonne, I am disappointed and angry at some of the tactics and language used in opposition to the community center and against my friends and neighbors,” said Chiaravalloti. “I hope we can learn and grow as a community from this experience.”
Mayor James Davis issued a statement the following day:
“For over a decade the Muslim community in Bayonne has gathered peacefully and quietly in the basement of St. Henry’s parish. Their hope like that of the Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants before them was to have a place of their own to gather and pray. Let’s be clear that the denial by the zoning board does not change the fact that the Muslim community is part of our community. I hope that their faith in our community, their trust in our system of government, their belief in the essential goodness of people remains. I ask that going forward we continue to respect each other’s views and celebrate our differences as in the end it is those differences that make our city great.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.