Planning commission approves mosque

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 Santa Clara County Planning Commission approved plans to build the Cordoba Center in San Martin – a mosque, cemetery and meeting place for the South Valley Islamic Community – at its meeting late Thursday afternoon, according to Hamdy Abbass, spokesman for SVIC who attended the meeting in San Jose.

The decision is a culmination of two back-to-back public meetings in Morgan Hill that unearthed anti-Muslim sentiment among San Martin residents, and drew counter opinions from others expressing tolerance.

County staff was poised to recommend that the commission table the decision on the Cordoba Center for one month, to allow more studies of a backup leachfield for the project’s septic system.

Though, that’s not what transpired Thursday evening.

“It’s a win-win situation for us and for the community because they’re going to get a good neighbor. We look forward to dealing with good neighbors,” Abbass said.

Abbass was “elated” after the meeting. He said the planning commission will recommend that another round of soil tests will be done, though not before the project is approved, but rather before construction begins on the land.

Hundreds of residents mostly from southern Santa Clara County attended two planning advisory meetings to discuss the mosque and cemetery proposal.

SVIC argued against continuing the planning commission’s decision and urged the commission to approve the project, as all previous environmental and impact studies support the proposal.

The meeting of the South County Joint Planning Advisory Committee at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center Wednesday was notably more organized than a meeting the previous night on the same subject, but some of the attendees expressing public comments were more open in their fear of a Muslim presence in San Martin.

At Wednesday’s meeting Nancy Murphy of San Martin called the proposed mosque a “Trojan horse” to the rural, unincorporated town.

“The fanatics are in control of Islam, and they’re slaughtering Christians” in other countries, Murphy proclaimed in front of the crowd of more than 150 residents.

She was followed by a number of South County residents, many who explained that American mainstream Muslims are peaceful, and denouced the “bigotry” and “ugly tactics” that fuel some of the project’s opposition.

Morgan Hill resident Swanee Edwards said the county should be cautious on groundwater issues, but some of the opponents are using this and other complaints to disquise their prejudice against those who practice the Islamic faith.

“To cloak this obvious bigotry in building code and groundwater (concerns) is obviously disingenuous,” Edwards said. “What we don’t understand is what we fear.”

Members of the South Valley Islamic Community, the developer of the project, also spoke at both meetings decrying what they see as a thinly veiled effort to frighten residents and county staff into opposing the mosque.

Despite the scattered comments on the cultural rather than technical aspects of the project that the planning department is tasked with evaluating, many other residents raised what appeared to be honest trepidation over the impact on local groundwater of a septic system designed to handle regular crowds of up to 80 people, as well as San Martin’s first cemetery.

Donald Harley of San Martin spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, as well as Tuesday’s meeting of the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee. He explained Tuesday that the town, including his property that he purchased in the 1970s, has a history of groundwater problems, owing to residents’ legitimate fears of another manmade impact.

These include the perchlorate contamination by the Olin Corporation that was discovered in the early 2000s and affected hundreds of private local wells, and heavy flooding during a handful of notably rainy years.

Harley suggested moving the cemetery uphill from the site on the same property where it is now proposed, where buried bodies won’t be as close to the groundwater table.

Ensuring compliance with regulations

The Cordoba Center was first proposed by the SVIC in 2006, but stalled a couple years later due to a lack of financing. The project was resubmitted in December 2011.

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. The southern and eastern edges of the property are at street level, but it slopes uphill toward the northwestern side.

The staff’s lengthy 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.

The South County committee voted to support the staff’s recommendation to continue the project until the September meeting.

Committee member Gordon Siebert, who is a Morgan Hill council member, asked staff to contact the state cemetery and funeral bureau to “assure themselves and residents” that the Cordoba Center’s burial procedures are in compliance with regulations.

He added after the meeting that he was “somewhat concerned” about residents’ comments that addressed the religious rather than the land-use aspects, including some incendiary words heard by attendees leaving the meeting.

County staff said previous groundwater and soil studies throughout the areas where construction and digging are proposed illustrate the soil percolates slowly enough to keep any harmful materials from seeping into the groundwater. Plus, the top of the groundwater table is at least 17-feet below the topsoil, which is more than enough room to meet county and state standards.

Some residents, and even advisory committee members were confused about the percolation tests because some tests conducted at lower elevations on the site in 2006, when a previous developer proposed a residential project on the site, failed. As a result, county staff and the developer decided to “disregard” that project and focus on the Cordoba development, according to Ann Peden of the county department of environmental health.

The septic system and cemetery for that project are proposed at higher elevations on the property, and Peden said all those tests met health regulations. Plus, the county and developer “avoided” any activity at another corner of the property that was prone to flooding.

“That area does support a septic field and expansion field,” Peden said Wednesday.

‘Last minute’ decision by planning staff?

Proponents of the project wondered why the county planning staff decided at the “last minute” to recommend new tests on a section of the property, when all previous testing has already proven the project to be environmentally suitable for septic needs and a cemetery. Abbass said Peden’s history of the soil studies prove that no more testing is necessary.

“Are they giving in to the opposition?” Abbass wondered.

When asked why the extra tests and delay of the project was recommended days after a published recommendation for approval, planning staff said due to the “high volume” of letters, e-mails and comments submitted in the last few days they wanted to be “double sure” that the concerns were comprehensively addressed.

“It was a conservative decision – in the interest of prudence and public concerns, we thought additional testing makes sense,” Santa Clara County planning manager Kirk Girard said Thursday morning.

Wednesday’s meeting was decidedly more orderly than Tuesday’s. South County Joint Planning Advisory Committee chair Mike Wasserman, who is also South County’s elected representative on the board of supervisors, started the Cordoba Center discussion by urging public speakers to direct their comments to the commitee and not the audience, and said the body would “not tolerate” profanity or unnecessary crowd noise.

That contrasted with Tuesday’s meeting of the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee, which was characterized by boisterous yelling and constant interruptions from the crowd. At times, the meeting grew nearly out of control as attendees shouted from the audience against speakers whom they disagreed with, and applauded loudly with those they supported.

That meeting was at the Grange Hall in Morgan Hill, an unusual location for the San Martin committee — it was chosen by county staff in anticipation of the 170-plus who attended. The 186-capacity meeting hall was standing-room only, with people spilling out of two doors on both sides.

More than 20 people spoke during public comments at the meeting, with most against the Cordoba Center 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.

Several audience members displayed handmade posters at both meetings alluding to various complaints about the project, labeling its developers a “special interest,” and asking who would be held liable if the groundwater becomes contaminated.

While Sal Akhter, SVIC member and Cordoba Center project manager, spoke as the last public commenter at Tuesday’s meeting, the audience emitted a loud sustain of disapproval as he demonstrated the existing local presence of Muslim residents and activity in San Martin. Akhter was visibly and vocally upset at the reaction and many of the comments that preceded his, and directed many of his words to the audience rather than the committee.

“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.”

Seated opponents of the project attempted to shout him down, particularly after he exceeded his allotted three-minute speaking limit and the committee allowed him to continue anyway.

“Time!” numerous audience members repeatedly and loudly shouted at the expiration of the clock. Dozens intermittently screamed angry responses to some of his comments.

Aside from potential water contamination, another resounding concern among residents and committee members was the project might not meet county general plan requirements that the project serve local needs in order to minimize unnecessary impacts from outside the community.

County planner Rob Eastwood at both meetings stressed that in the case of a religious institution, it would be nearly impossible and potentially litigious if the county attempts to link the project to the religious affiliation of those who live around it.

State and federal laws guaranteeing religious freedom and free speech would likely trump the local land use laws, he said.

Besides, SVIC members said they do in fact live and work in San Martin and areas surrounding the community. The SVIC has a core membership group of about 80 Muslim families in the south Santa Clara Valley area.

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