Resident’s concerns amplify after mosque permit approval

San Martin, Morgan Hill and Gilroy residents hold up signs during a meeting Tuesday night at the Grange Hall in Morgan Hill with the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee about the Cordoba Center, a 15-acre prayer hall and cemetery to be built in San Mar

Developers of the proposed Cordoba Center Islamic mosque and cemetery in San Martin said they jumped over the “first hurdle” with the Santa Clara County planning commission’s approval of the use permit for the property where they plan to build a new religious institution.

The project will still require a series of permits for grading, construction and other activity on the site, according to Roland Velasco of Supervisor Mike Wasserman’s office.

The seven-member planning commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the site’s use permit, pending an additional study of a reserve septic leachfield proposed for the site.

The approval followed a series of planning advisory meetings in Morgan Hill that drew hundreds of South County residents and hours of impassioned public comments both in opposition to and support of the project.

Construction on the two proposed buildings on the property on the 14000 block of Monterey Road near California Avenue does not require further approval by the County Board of Supervisors. However, the developer – the South Valley Islamic Community – will have to return to the county offices to seek a permit for the proposed cemetery on the site.

Such a permit requires further approval of the planning commission and the board of supervisors.

“Just because the planning commission approved it doesn’t mean they can start building,” Velasco said.

By Monday, the SVIC had already conducted the extra study of the backup leachfield that the commission required as a condition for a grading permit, SVIC spokesman Hamdy Abbass said. The test, the purpose of which was to determine the rate at which water soaks through the ground and which Abbass said was monitored by county planning staff, showed the soil met county and state standards for septic percolation rates.

A similar study had been conducted on the site previously, but county staff wanted to see another one due to the overwhelming volume of public comments submitted in concern of the project’s effect on the water table.

The SVIC is not yet operating on a defined timeline, as they are aware of the many more permits they need to start construction and the conditions they have to meet, Abbass said.

Situated on a 15-acre property just north of the intersection of Monterey Road and California Avenue, the proposal includes two ranch-style structures – a prayer hall and a multi-purpose building – as well as a cemetery and open space. The southern and eastern edges of the property are at street level, but it slopes uphill toward the northwest.

The uphill slope of the property is a key aspect to understanding previous groundwater studies of the property and one next door that showed vastly differing results, Abbass explained.

The neighboring property, where a residential development was proposed in 2006, failed the groundwater tests, but similar studies on the elevated Cordoba Center site passed.

Concerns about the possible effect of the project on San Martin’s drinking water have been common among residents as the project approached planning commission approval, and are likely to remain throughout the permitting process.

Crowded community meetings in Morgan Hill – one that saw a standing-room-only audience spilling out the doors – drew dozens of comments on the possible effect of the project on the groundwater, the project’s intent to serve local interests or not, traffic, noise and other concerns.

Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of the Gilroy/Morgan Hill Patriots and an outspoken opponent of the Cordoba Center, did not return phone calls Monday.

Some of the comments expressed unabashed fear of an increased Muslim presence in San Martin, which SVIC members countered with the observation that they have lived and worshipped in San Martin and throughout South Santa Clara County for decades.  

Abbass noted that it is in the SVIC’s “best interest” to ensure the project won’t affect the area groundwater.

“People have to know that we’re going to use this facility, we’re going to be drinking that water, and we’re going to suffer the most if it fails,” Abbass said.

Many San Martin residents have suffered a tumultuous history when it comes to the groundwater, including a perchlorate contamination in the early 2000s that contaminated hundreds of wells, and periodic storms that have flooded wells, septic systems and the public sewage system.

Planning advisor Bob Cerruti is not completely convinced that previous studies on the possible effect of the project on San Martin’s groundwater are definitive.

And he’s upset that county planning staff did not provide the results of all the relevant studies to the two committees he sits on – the San Martin Planning and South County Joint Planning advisory committees.

Cerruti learned at Wednesday’s meeting of the South County committee that studies were conducted on the site of the Cordoba Center, which is planned uphill from a site where the earlier residential project was scrapped due to failing percolation tests.

The studies, completed in 2006, found that the soil on the Cordoba Center site was suitable for a septic system and cemetery, but the advisory committees never saw those results.

“Something is not quite right here. We should have been supplied with all the information to make a good, conscious decision,” Cerruti said.

Cerruti, a San Martin resident, also wondered why the county and Regional Water Quality Control Board only used two wells owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, each more than 3,000 feet away from the Cordoba Center site, in their study of the groundwater depth.

The regulatory agencies could have studied up to eight other wells closer to the site to make, perhaps, a more informed determination on the possible impact, said Cerruti, who personally walked the property and talked to neighbors in preparation for last week’s meetings of the advisory committees. Each of those meetings drew nearly 200 people.

“I do not know why they did not use those wells,” Cerruti said.

One of the wells cited by Cerruti is a private well on a property less than 200 feet south downhill from the Cordoba Center site. The county, water district and Regional Water Quality Control Board never studied that well, as far as Cerruti could tell.

In his discussion with the property owner, Cerruti learned that during heavily rainy seasons, that well has overflowed, posing a possible risk of contamination and a low water table.

He thus thinks groundwater studies and percolation tests should be conducted during the rainy seasons.

“I’m concerned about the quality of the groundwater for those residents in close proximity” to the Cordoba Center site, Cerruti said. “I’m concerned about their drinking water.”

Other conditions attached to the planning commission’s approval include no commercial food or beverage sales to be allowed on the site, and no outdoor amplified music or broadcasting, Velasco added.

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