Appeals filed in response to San Martin mosque approval

Sal Akhter, project manager with the South Valley Islamic Community, speaks to the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee during a meeting Tuesday night at the Grange Hall in Morgan Hill about the proposed Cordoba Center.

The builders of the proposed mosque in rural San Martin have appealed the approval of their own use permit, asking the Santa Clara County planning commission to allow overnight accommodations, to host events with nearly twice as many people than previously requested and to double the size of the proposed multi-purpose building.

In all, three parties filed an appeal in response to the Santa Clara County planning commission’s decision to approve the Cordoba Center use permit with conditions, according to county staff.

The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance, People’s Coalition for Government Accountability, and the developer of the proposed mosque and community center – the South Valley Islamic Community – each filed an appeal to the use permit and conditions Friday, according to county planner Bill Shoe.

The planning commission approved the Cordoba Center mosque, community center and cemetery at its regular meeting Aug. 2. Conditions attached to the permit include that the developer conduct more tests on the soil percolation rates on the property (which have already been completed), as well as the prohibition of commercial food and beverages and outdoor amplified music or broadcasting.

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.

SVIC spokesman Hamdy Abbass said the developer’s reason for the appeal was to allow more than four holiday or special events per year that can accommodate up to 150 people, and to allow the property to employ around-the-clock security personnel.

The permit approved unanimously by the planning commission only allows up to four annual events of 80 people at the proposed Cordoba Center, and prohibits overnight accommodations. The SVIC said in its appeal letter that these conditions place “undue restrictions” on the developer, they were “not based on any factual data,” and are “contrary to the applicant’s original intent for the use of this religious facility.”

Instead, the SVIC wants to allow up to 150 people on the site on “any given day,” the appeal letter says.

“I’ve never heard of a church that (is restricted) to a limited time to open for festivities or holidays,” Abbass said.

Abbass added that the original traffic and septic system studies of the site support such a regular crowd.

Plus, allowing limited overnight accommodations would allow the Cordoba Center to employ security staff, which Abbass said is “essential” for the site.

Furthermore, the SVIC wants to modify its site plans to increase the size of the multi-purpose building from 2,800 square feet as proposed in their initial plans, to 5,000 square feet. With the mosque/prayer hall next door, that would place two 5,000-square-foot buildings on the property.

The appeal by the SMNA, filed by San Martin resident Sylvia Hamilton, repeats concerns voiced in meetings and interviews before the planning commission’s approval of the Cordoba Center, and to which the county responded by conducting environmental and traffic studies that have already disputed the concerns.

“The proposed project fails to comply with the relevant county plans, policies and regulations regarding proposed development in San Martin and should not have been approved by the planning commission,” the SMNA’s appeal letter says.

The SMNA lists a number of policies and guidelines from the county general plan, zoning ordinance, San Martin Integrated Design Plan and South County Joint Area Plan that it says the proposal is not in compliance with.

The SMNA’s appeal indicates the group is not satisfied with studies and reports already conducted on the site by the county and consultants that show the Cordoba Center will not have a significant impact on groundwater and storm runoff, and the site is suitable for a septic system.

“We feel very strongly that the county has not done as thorough a job they need to do to be absolutely sure that neither the cemetery or the center will contaminate the ground water in any way,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton, 70, said as a long-time resident of San Martin, she has heard the concerns of the community over groundwater.

“I’m not opposed to the Muslims at all, or the mosque, it’s that we want them to be treated the same way other people are. I feel really badly because I know a lot of them feel like that it’s just prejudice, and I’m sure that a lot of people are, but that is not where I am coming from.”

The People’s Coalition for Government Accountability appeal, filed by Lucy Walsh, also repeats concerns it raised previously.

People’s Coalition for Government Accountability is an obscure entity that has distributed literature opposing the project that is only tangentially aligned with the historical record, and until filing its appeal has not listed any names or contact information for people associated with the group.

Concerns over the groundwater brought up by San Martin residents won’t evaporate anytime soon.

Marilyn Barrow, 71, has spend 68 years of her life in San Martin and is worried about the Cordoba Center for its impact on groundwater because of its proximity to Llagas Creek, especially now that the SVIC has petitioned for a building double the original project size.

“I knew this was coming. You go in for a small project because you get the approval, once you have approval for the small, how will the county say no to something bigger?” Barrow said.

“As a long-time San Martin resident, I don’t have a problem with a mosque. People should be able to worship the way their religion demands they worship,” Barrow said. “But I do have a problem with water contamination. If we have bad water in a few years because of it, what are we going to do?”

Donna Brodsky, 62-year-old San Martin resident, had what she called a “knee-jerk reaction” to SVIC appealing the project and asking for a larger building.

“It leads me to believe they want more than they originally asked for which makes me think that was their intention to begin with,” Brodsky said.

But Brodsky is trying to move beyond the knee-jerk reactions she sees on both sides, and despite retaining some concerns with the project, she is hoping that Cordoba Center supporters and opponents can sit down and have intelligent, constructive conversations soon.

Brodsky recently met with Sal Akhter of SVIC, who she said became “very emotional” during their conversation.

“Meeting with him really put humanity to the whole issue,” she said.

Brodsky thinks there is a whole group of San Martin residents whose voices aren’t being heard over the “hot heads” on both sides of the debate.

“So many of us hate the rhetoric, the horrible rhetoric that you hear,” she said. “We know that there is a group out there who is concerned about their community, and by that, I mean land and water issues – not fear-based religious talk.”

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