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Muslim group files federal lawsuit against Bayonne

DOJ launches investigation

Bayonne Muslims, the group that applied for and was denied a zoning application to convert an abandoned warehouse on 109 East 24th Street into a mosque, has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Bayonne alleging discrimination. The suit cites the First and Fourteenth Amendments as well as Municipal Land Use Law, aiming to challenge the denial of their application.
The suit comes after the Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the application by Bayonne Muslims on March 6. The board approved conditional use variances in curb width and buffer zone, but denied the group for a bulk parking variance, for which it requested 37 on-site parking spaces when the zoning board was asking for 54.
Three zoning officials voted against the group, citing traffic congestion and insufficient parking as reasons for their vote. They denied in public comments that religious discrimination influenced their reasoning. The mosque’s application is predicated on its status as a place of worship, which, as applied under Municipal Land Use law, gives it special consideration.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Bayonne Zoning Board’s decision, the DOJ confirmed on Wednesday.

By the books

The core of the argument on both sides has always been, on its surface, parking. Bayonne Muslims makes the case that the 37 off-street parking spaces requested in the variance is sufficient according to local ordinance. Under the ordinance, places of worship require one parking space for every four seats in the main auditorium.
Bayonne Muslims originally planned for 216 prayer mats in the auditorium, which would need 54 spaces according to the ratio. To reduce the number of required parking spaces, the group planned to hold more prayer sessions with fewer attendees per session, thereby reducing the number of prayer mats by 81 for a total of 135. The new figure would require about 34 spots, and the group offered 37.
Traffic concerns by neighborhood residents were compounded by the recently approved six-story, 189-unit apartment building planned for the same neighborhood. Many of the same residents who opposed that development also opposed the mosque for the same traffic concerns.
Bayonne Muslims argue that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the City of Bayonne used land use rules to place unreasonable limitations and burdens on them.
Bayonne Muslims used the basement of St. Henry’s Church as its place of worship from 2008 until January 31, 2017, when St. Henry’s refused to renew the group’s lease, according to the suit. That leaves the group without a local place of worship. In October, a young Bayonne man spray-painted Islamaphobic hate speech in red across the façade of the church where the Muslim community entered the basement.
Waheid Akbar, secretary of Bayonne Muslims, said before the vote that the group was having difficulty finding an appropriate location, because property suitable for a mosque is hard to come by in Bayonne. After much searching, the Muslim community decided on the warehouse years ago with the good graces of city officials across two mayoral administrations.
The group also argues in the lawsuit that the bulk parking variance should have been granted, citing provided parking at other places of worship. “Moreover, with 37 off-street parking spaces, the proposed mosque provided on-site parking that equaled or exceeded that provided by all but one other house of worship in Bayonne,” reads the suit.
Members of the group have said the mosque has heeded the concerns of the neighborhood and the zoning board. The group tried to lessen the parking burden on the community, both by adjusting prayer sessions and coordinating a shuttle and valet service. The shuttle and valet arrangements were not included in the application but were communicated to the board.

Undue burden

While a majority voted in favor of the application, the request for a conditional use variance for parking required a supermajority, which the group did not receive. Under Bayonne’s Zoning Ordinance, which adopts Municipal Land Use laws, places of worship are conditionally permitted in residential zones, as long as the structure is at least 20,000 square feet and satisfies the 30-foot setback requirement.
Bayonne Muslims did not satisfy the 30-foot setback requirement because the existing warehouse does not have a 30-foot setback. The group said it plans to adapt the existing structure to accommodate the setback.
In the suit, Bayonne Muslims argues that Planning Board members “purported to base their determination on factors they were legally precluded from considering,” namely “traffic or the appropriateness of the neighborhood for a mosque.” The board, when casting the vote, cited parking as its reason, but Bayonne Muslims argues the board had no right because Bayonne Muslims applied as a place of worship, and should be treated with the exemptions afforded all places of worship.
The group hopes the court finds the Planning Board’s decision unconstitutional, and therefore null and void. It also requests the court issue a preliminary and final injunction to the City of Bayonne and the Planning Board within 10 days of the Court Order, to approve the group’s site plan, as well as compensatory damages to be determined at trial.
The attorney for the group sent a statement via email, quoting members of the Muslim community in Bayonne:
“I have lived in Bayonne since 1979. I own businesses and a home here. I raised my daughters here. This is my city, just as much as any other resident. We will fight for the rights that our Constitution gives every American.” – Khaled Aly [Vice President of Bayonne Muslims].
“As is happening in towns across America, phony zoning issues were used to block our mosque because of bigotry against Muslims. The Zoning Board subjected our application to completely different standards than those it applied to Christian churches. This project is very important to the future of Muslims in this city, and we will not give up.” – Abdul Hameed Butt [President of Bayonne Muslims].

Meanwhile, in Basking Ridge

News of the DOJ investigation came the same day Bernards Township settled a similar lawsuit with the Muslim community in its town for denying a zoning board application to build a mosque. That suit was settled, and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge will now be able to build its place of worship. The city will also pay the group $3.25 million in damages and legal fees. While the DOJ is investigating Bayonne, it has not yet filed a lawsuit against the city like it did against Bernards Township.
In Bayonne, aside from the primary concern of ensuring all citizens are afforded constitutional rights, residents may be concerned about the legal cost of the zoning board’s decision. Legal fees incurred by the city can easily run into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, depending on how long it stays in court.

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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