MOSQUE: SVIC will give up mosque permit in order to ‘move the project forward more quickly’

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.

In a move designed to vanquish a lawsuit brought by San Martin residents, supporters of a plan to build a mosque and Islamic community center in San Martin relinquished their County-approved use permit.
“But we’re not going anywhere,” SVIC spokesman Hamdy Abbass reiterated.
The SVIC plans to submit another application for a similar, or possibly identical project at the same site – a 15-acre parcel just north of the intersection of Monterey Road and California Avenue, Abbass said. He did not know when the SVIC plans to submit the new application.
At the SVIC’s request and with the recommendation of County staff, the Board of Supervisors during its meeting Tuesday at the County Government Center in San Jose officially rescinded the use permit it previously approved.
The Cordoba Center proposal includes a 5,000-square-foot prayer hall, 2,800-square-foot multi-purpose hall, a two-acre cemetery and children’s play area. Project plans were originally approved with permit restrictions recommended by the County Planning Commission, including a daily attendance limit of 80 people, with a maximum of 150 four times a year for special events.
The SVIC’s decision to “voluntarily relinquish” the use permit, which was granted by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in September 2012, is in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of San Martin residents in December 2012.
The lawsuit was filed by the “People’s Coalition for Government Accountability” and alleges the County did not take a full account of the Cordoba Center proposal’s potential impact on the nearby environment in accordance with state and federal laws that regulate such impacts.
County staff conducted studies on the potential impact of the project before the supervisors approved it. Those studies found the SVIC’s proposal would have no significant negative impact on the environment, roads, utilities or surrounding neighborhood.
The SVIC and its attorneys spent “several months” trying to make a deal with the PCGA, but the group refused to give in on their stated demands, Abbass said. So, instead of being blocked by the PCGA’s “delay tactics,” the SVIC will withdraw its proposal, for now, on the advice of its attorneys.
“The decision (to withdraw the permit) effectively puts an end to that lawsuit, while enabling SVIC to pursue a variety of options to move the project forward more quickly,” said a press release from SVIC.
The SVIC’s withdrawal of the existing permit and re-applying for a similar or identical project at the same San Martin site might not prevent the PCGA from filing yet another lawsuit, but “it’s up to them,” Abbass said.
“We’re not going to give in to the delay and fear tactics this group is trying to put us through,” he added.
PCGA attorney Rachel Mansfield-Howlett responded to this, saying her clients aren’t bringing a case “this loud just for delay.”
“We brought this purely for environmental reasons,” she said Tuesday. “We’re not going out on a limb on this one at all.”
Multiple e-mails sent to a PCGA member listed in the lawsuit were not returned.
As for whether the PCGA will file another lawsuit, “we have no idea,” Mansfield-Howlett said. “We’ll have to see what’s proposed…I don’t think they’re going to propose the exact same project. I just don’t see the point of that.”
The SVIC represents about 80 families from San Jose to Hollister and beyond, and the Cordoba Center project is meant to serve their prayer and worship needs. SVIC members have also said the site could be available for community use through rentals for the future community center and special events sponsored by the SVIC.
SVIC members have already been gathering for prayer and religious services at a privately owned barn in San Martin for about 20 years. The group also regularly utilizes the Community and Cultural Center in Morgan Hill for meetings and special events.
“Our members have lived and worked in this community for decades,” said SVIC President Kamila Kraba. “Our congregation is here to stay.”
The addition of a Muslim cemetery at the San Martin site will be convenient to the SVIC, as the closest Muslim cemetery now is in Fremont, said former SVIC President Karen Musa. The closest mosque is Masjid Al Rasool in Campbell.
The PCGA’s complaint describes its organization as “an unincorporated association formed in the public interest to promote open, fair, well-informed, and responsible land use planning in Santa Clara County.”
For its defense of the PCGA lawsuit, SVIC is represented pro bono by the San Francisco-based law firm of Barg, Coffin, Lewis & Trapp, LLP, and the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, according to the press release.
“In a strange way, the PCGA’s lawsuit was a blessing for our community because it helped us assemble an expert legal team to advise us on how best to move forward and protect the rights of our community, while affirming that the project will have no negative impacts on the environment,” Musa said.
The PCGA’s lawsuit, which also names the County, asked the court to void the Cordoba Center’s use permit, and to order more extensive environmental studies if the SVIC planned to resubmit the project.
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.
San Martin Planning advisor Bob Cerruti, 76, is not completely convinced that previous studies on the possible effect of the project on San Martin’s groundwater are definitive, leaving him concerned “about the quality of the groundwater for those residents in close proximity” to the Cordoba Center site and “concerned about their drinking water.”
Cerruti, a San Martin resident for more than 26 years, reiterated Tuesday he has “no problem” with the SVIC “wanting to establish themselves a place.” But he wants to know if the SVIC plans on making any changes to its project plans before resubmitting them to the county.
Abbass said he “cannot really speak of what we’re going to do,” but pointed out groundwater concerns “were already settled” when the County approved plans the first time around.
Kraba says the SVIC remains “fully committed to our new mosque and community center, which will not only benefit our local congregation, but will also benefit the South County community at large through our charitable efforts and public use of the facilities.”