Opposition to Islamic center continues

Environmental report does little to ease tension in San Martin

Hanna Afzal (19), Sana Afzal (16) and Maimona Afzal-Berta (23)

South Valley Islamic families are beginning to see their long-awaited plans to build a mosque and community center in San Martin come together, but some vocal San Martin residents continue to oppose the project.

The pros and cons of building the proposed Cordoba Center were discussed July 12 at a special meeting of the Santa Clara County Planning Commission to hear comments on a draft environmental impact report. Many of the comments reflected the continuing culture clash in this unincorporated community of 7,000 along U.S. 101 between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, rather than the specifics of the EIR. The 200-page report identified few negative impacts of the construction project.

The South Valley Islamic Community, which serves Muslim families residing in South Santa Clara County, has been meeting in a converted barn in San Martin since 2001. The community purchased the land for the new worship center in 2006 and has re-submitted plans three times. In 2012, plans for a mosque and community center were unanimously approved by the county planning commission and Board of Supervisors.

But when neighbors sued to block the project, the Islamic community voluntarily withdrew, re-submitting plans for a larger facility and offering to fund an EIR. Six years later, the center is again a few months away from final county approval.

The center is to be built on Monterey Road neighboring Llagas Creek, on the highest point in San Martin. The proposed project includes a mosque, a community building, recreational facilities, a cemetery and a summer camp site.

The Hiram room at the Morgan Hill Community Center was at capacity on July 12, with approximately 280 people inside and more watching on monitors set up in the hallway during the special meeting. The meeting was hosted by the Santa Clara County Planning Commission and San Martin Planning Advisory Committee to mark the halfway point of the comment period on the EIR. The comment period ends July 30.

Islamic community member Nashaba Afzal said at the meeting that the report, combined with the decision by the South Valley Islamic Community to withdraw its previous applications, represented an effort to be transparent. She said, “We didn’t want people thinking that we’re shoving this down their throats.”

The plan remains a flashpoint for many, with residents from Gilroy and Morgan Hill joining their San Martin neighbors in the comments at the meeting. Booing or clapping occasionally drowned out speakers’ remarks, and signs both for and against the center were fervently waved in the air.

Afzal’s three daughters, Hanna, 19, Sana, 16 and Maimona, 23, defended the project during the public comments, saying the opposition was directed more toward Islamic community members than the specifics of the Cordoba Center plan.

“Let’s call this opposition for what it is: bigotry,” said Maimona Afzal-Berta.

The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance has been a fierce opponent of the project from the start, and members of the group protested at Wednesday’s meeting, accompanied by large printed photos of floods in San Martin.,

In an emailed statement on behalf of the alliance, Trina Hineser said the group is concerned about the center’s size, what they say are inaccuracies in the EIR, the proposed cemetery’s impact on groundwater and the center’s effects on development in San Martin.

“We would be pleased to engage with the proposers regarding a more modest project that would meet their needs with substantially less impact,” wrote Hineser, “but regretfully cannot support this project as proposed.”

Islamic community member Hambdy Abass said the South Valley Islamic Community and the neighborhood alliance have sat down on multiple occasions to discuss the project. Abass said he was confused after seeing the alliance at the meeting. “They say they’re on our side,” he said, adding that he doesn’t feel that the points the alliance has made in public reflect the concerns and sentiments the group shared with Islamic community members in private meetings.

The alliance’s concerns regarding the cemetery’s effect on San Martin residents’ water supplies was echoed by many attendees throughout the meeting. While the EIR shows the center having minimal impact on flooding and the community’s access to groundwater, the report finds the cemetery’s effect on water quality in the area to be “potentially significant.”

The report stated, “The potential effect on groundwater is not because of any specific toxicity [human remains] possess, but rather because of the potential for increasing the concentration of naturally occurring organic or inorganic substances to levels that would render the groundwater unfit for potable supplies or other uses.”

Despite the alliance’s disapproval, Abass said he felt overwhelmingly optimistic coming away from the meeting. He believed a majority of the comments made were in support of the center.

Abass said the questions regarding the cemetery’s effects on groundwater are a valid public concern, but added that the Islamic center’s motivations to ensure that San Martin groundwater remains uncontaminated are just as great as the other members of the community.

“We put in a lot of work to make sure the cemetery has no effect on us or our children,” said Abass.

A community question-and-answer session was set for 7pm July 18 at the Advent Lutheran Church, 16870 Murphy Ave., Morgan Hill.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman was not at the July 12 meeting, but said in a statement that he encourages all constituents to take advantage of the comment period. “The community can also attend and comment on this project at future hearings of the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee, the county planning commission and the Board of Supervisors,” said Wasserman.

After the comment period for the draft EIR closes July 30, county planning staff will spend several weeks compiling responses to the comments. Then the project will be considered by the county planning commission and the Board of Supervisors, with further public review opportunities built into the approval processes.

Abass hopes those who still have questions will submit them to the commission, come to question-and-answer sessions, or read the 200-page report. “Everything required of us, we delivered,” said Abass. “It’s time for the county to deliver as well.”

Questions and comments should be sent to [email protected].

Leave your comments