Impassioned crowd attends Cordoba Center mosque planning meeting

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.

Nearly 200 residents attended a Santa Clara County committee meeting Tuesday night to voice an impassioned mix of concerns, opposition, support and questions regarding the proposed Cordoba Center mosque project – which would serve San Benito residents and is set for consideration by a planning commission later this week.

The San Martin Planning Advisory Commission meeting was held at the Grange Hall in Morgan Hill, an unusual venue for the commission. The hall was selected for its occupancy capacity due to county planning staff’s anticipation of the large crowd that showed up.

County staff began the meeting by announcing that their recommendation to the planning commission, first presented to the public last week, has changed, or at least been postponed due to the high volume of concerns submitted by the public. While last week the staff recommended the commission approve the project when it takes up the issue Thursday, tonight they said they will recommend the body postpone a decision in order to allow further studies of the soil permeability and groundwater depth on the San Martin site where the South Valley Islamic Center plans to build the Cordoba Center.

County staff said the additional studies would likely be completed before the planning commission’s September meeting. Santa Clara County planning manager Kirk Gerard said those tests will examine the site of a proposed drainage field on the property, as well as that of a reserve leach field elsewhere on the same site to ensure the soil will accommodate expected water runoff and not contaminate the groundwater.

“With the great deal of input we have received, we want to make sure we can fully support the project,” and fully analyze the project’s possible effect on the groundwater basin, Gerard said.

Situated on a 15-acre property on the 14000 block of Monterey Highway, just north of the intersection of California Avenue, the proposal includes two ranch-style structures – a prayer hall and a community center – as well as a cemetery and open space.

Of the many complaints uttered by area residents about the project since its inception in 2007, the most resounding so far, has been the potential effect on the groundwater of a septic system to handle regular attendance of up to 80 people, and the presence of San Martin’s first cemetery on the property. The SVIC, which consists of a core group of about 80 families, has been meeting for prayers and religious services in a member’s barn in San Martin in recent years.

The audience at the meeting was standing-room-only, with attendees spilling out of two doors on either side of the meeting hall.

More than 20 members of the audience spoke during public comments at the meeting, mostly against the project citing the groundwater issue as well as possible impacts on traffic, noise, storm water runoff and flooding, and the Cordoba Center’s capacity to serve local needs in accordance with the county’s general plan. Some speakers even expressed unabashed fear of the Islamic community who plans to make the Cordoba Center their worship headquarters.

The meeting at times lost order, with attendees shouting in argument from the audience against speakers whom they disagreed with, and applauding loudly with those they supported.

When Sal Akhter, SVIC member and Cordoba Center project manager, spoke as the last public commenter, the audience emitted a loud sustain of disapproval. Akhter was visibly and vocally upset at the reaction and many of the comments that preceded his.

“So much complaints and charges, I don’t where to begin,” said Akhter, who added he has lived in San Martin for 30 years. “We have followed every letter of the law, without a single request for a variance.”

San Martin Planning Advisory Committee member Bob Cerruti asked county staff a series of questions about the storm water and groundwater issues on the property, citing his own field research in preparation for Tuesday’s meeting, and discussions with longtime neighbors of the site who told him some of the county staff’s observations of the property are not accurate.

The staff’s report on the project determined that the Cordoba Center proposal would have no significant impact on any of the areas of concern cited by the public, including groundwater worries even though the staff concluded that a more updated study on that question is needed.

Check back later for more details about Tuesday’s meeting.

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