County balks on Cordoba Center proposal

Planning commission wants to scale down project

What was expected to be an end to a 13-year journey for the South Valley Islamic Center trying to open the Cordoba Center mosque and cemetery in San Martin, was instead another set of changes and obstacles for the project.

At the May 23 meeting the Santa Clara County Planning Commission, in a 4-3 vote, voted down the project as it was submitted. Instead, the commission tabled the item to the Aug. 22 meeting and directed planning staff to come back to that session with findings for a project that was half of the size, as well as one that is 75 percent of the size proposed by SVIC.

SVIC will need to decide if they would like to go back to the drawing board and recreate plans for the multi-use project. SVIC members have previously said they needed the 20,000 square foot space to accommodate their current and future members.

The decision came at the end of a five-hour hearing on the item, but the crowd never wavered. A majority of those attending the meeting at the county government building in San Jose were members or supporters for the South Valley Islamic Center. The meeting hosted a standing-room-only crowd—with dozens of speakers lining up to speak in support of the proposed facility. Many of the speakers were prominent community members, local politicians and interfaith leaders.

Ultimately, the planning commissioners who voted against the project—Bob Levy, Kathy Schmidt, Erin Gil and Vicki Moore—said the size and scale of the proposed mosque, community center, cemetery and related facilities were not consistent with the county’s general plan. Supporters in the room were visibly upset, but not surprised—in a project that has encountered obstacles in every step, another contingency was not unexpected.

In an official statement the SVIC said, “Our collective faith gives us strength to endure through these final stages of what has been a very long and arduous journey.” Hamdy Abbass, board member of SVIC, said there has not yet been a decision on how the group will proceed with the project, but that the board members along with the project developer and legal counsel will be meeting Monday to discuss next steps.

Abbass said the process has been frustrating. “That is the most scrutinized project that has ever come out of Santa Clara County,” Abbass told this paper.

Prior to the May 23 planning commission meeting, county planning staff had recommended the commission approve the project with the mitigation measures. The San Martin Advisory Committee met twice in the two weeks leading up to the planning commission meeting to discuss the Cordoba Center, but could not reach a majority-supported recommendation. The advisory committee’s meeting notes that were passed on to the planning commission said that the San Martin committee thought the project should be scaled back by half the proposed size.

The advisory committee’s recommendation would not have been binding in the planning commission’s decision. The Cordoba Center proposal doesn’t require a supervisor vote for any piece of the project aside from the proposed cemetery plan.

SVIC’s current proposal is a 20,000 square foot site, which would make it the largest rural/residential zoned structure in San Martin. The proposed cemetery would have 3,000 graves spread out over time, with a cap of 30 burials per year under the county staff-recommended mitigation measures.

The land for the Cordoba Center was purchased in 2006 by the South Valley Islamic Center and after three proposals over the years, the center found new life in 2016 with a 15.8-acre plan that included a mosque, community center, cemetery, orchard and children’s camp.

The planning commission unanimously certified the final environmental impact report for the project. The document answered questions and concerns that had been expressed in public comments and public input sessions. Despite providing mitigation measures for the points of public concern, through burial plans for the cemetery, drainage basins for flooding, large foliage to keep out noise, along with other efforts; the commision now said the project was not in keeping with the county’s general plan.

All of the commissioners that voted against the project said they were in support of the site being used for the mosque and the cemetery, but were worried that approving a project of that size in rural residential zoning would lead to larger projects in the area.

Commission Chair Kathy Schmidt was the deciding vote on the approval. “I’m torn here,” said Schmidt. If the commissioners had denied the project all together, the Islamic center could have appealed the project to the county board of supervisors. Commissioner Aaron Resendez urged the commission to just deny the project instead of directing the staff and applicant to come back, allowing supervisors to make the ultimate decision.

Commission Vice Chair Marc Rauser voted in favor of the project and lives close to the site in San Martin. Rauser said the Islamic center had been great neighbors and that the environmental report was comprehensive. “This is gonna stick out,” said Rauser. “Not because it’s bad, but because it’s the nicest thing in our neighborhood.”

“We’re confident that we will be able to resolve this remaining issue [in August] and receive the final approval for the project,” said the South Valley Islamic Center in a statement to supporters about the commission’s decision. “Our deepest gratitude for your dedication to our cause and unwavering support.”

The SVIC currently worships in a converted barn in San Martin. At the planning meeting, members estimated their congregation to be around 100 people.