Written by Victoria Caruso-Davis Friday, 06 November 2009 00:00
The Islamic Center of Long Island (ICLI) was incorporated as a nonprofit entity in April 1982. At that time, a small brick home on the Brush Hollow Road property was altered but seven years later more space was needed and, by 1992, construction of a 10,000-square-foot structure featuring a mosque, library, classrooms and offices was completed. Now, 20 years later, ICLI is again seeking to expand.
At an Oct. 19 meeting, ICLI presented the Westbury Zoning Board of Appeals with their application seeking to build a three-story, 19,000 square foot addition somewhat connected to the existing structure via a courtyard. In planning for the expansion, ICLI purchased four homes – three on Jaymie Drive and one on Talbot Drive – over the course of the past 18 years. The plan, currently, is to use the land the homes once sat on for parking and to construct the addition on the current parking area.
While the proposal would significantly increase on-site parking from 35 to 87 spots, current village code requires 308 on-site parking spaces – 1 per 100 square feet. Since ICLI is short 221 spots, and the shape of the parcel cannot accommodate a tiered garage, the center is required to obtain a parking variance from the zoning board.
The center currently has 350 members, including some 30 families from the Westbury/New Cassel community. According to ICLI President Habeeb Ahmed, expansion would provide an opportunity for ICLI to accommodate existing members, not increase enrollment. “The number of people attending the mosque will not change,” Ahmed told The Westbury Times, adding that the goal of the project is for the mosque to hold its Sunday school and evening classes in “proper classrooms.”
Currently, the private homes acquired by ICLI are zoned Residential A and, by being used as classrooms, are in violation of village code. During the meeting, members of the zoning board stressed the importance of village officials taking proactive steps and actions to see that the homes are used for what they are zoned for and nothing more. Simply issuing summonses, said one board member, is not enough.
Ahmed believes the project will increase the current on-site parking situation. “The goal is to bring the parking inside the property and keep it off the street,” said Ahmed. “That would be helpful to our neighbors.” Ahmed said he is well aware that many are opposed to the parking lot itself. “They say they did not buy their property to look at a parking lot [but] this proposal will provide a neat, clean building with more parking onsite which will be good for the residents as well as the congregation,” he said.
During last month’s meeting, which was held in the Westbury Middle School auditorium, representatives for ICLI, including its board president, attorney, architect and traffic/parking engineer, were on hand to present the proposal to the zoning board and answer questions. Following their presentation, the public had an opportunity to speak out for and against the project.
Supporters, including but not limited to mosque members, spoke out in favor of the application. Many stated that allowing ICLI to move forward would be an asset to the overall community and “address certain needs” while others feel it would make Westbury an even stronger community in terms of its diversity.
“ICLI is a landmark,” said one resident not of Muslim faith, adding that a project of this nature would be “good for the community.”
Cambridge Avenue resident Rose Marie Walker also spoke out in support. “I stand by this creed: If you want a good neighbor, be a good neighbor.” Walker added that, in her opinion, “the Islamic center has been a good neighbor for nearly 25 years.”
However, residents residing in the immediate vicinity of the center, particularly homeowners on Franklin Street and Talbot, Jaymie and Francis drives, strongly disagree. They feel ICLI has been anything but a good neighbor. According to those who have owned their homes long before the Islamic center came to town, ICLI members have infringed on their quality of life. Many publicly voiced the opposition to the zoning board, claiming that members of the mosque are rude and noisy while others state that parishioners are inconsiderate when it comes to parking in front of their homes. Several residents stated that mosque members have hit their cars and blocked their driveways.
Currently, the mosque holds Friday afternoon and Sunday morning religion classes and Friday evening services. According to Bob Eschbacher of Melville-based Eschbacher Engineering PC, under the current application, parking conditions on the roads in the immediate vicinity of the mosque would improve based on the current application. He said that providing more than 50 on-site parking spaces would reduce the number of vehicles parked in front of residents’ homes, particularly on Friday afternoon and evenings and Sunday mornings, the two main days at the mosque.
Belinda Williams, a resident of Franklin Street since 1969, said that the mosque infringes on the community more than two days a week, especially during the month of Ramadan and asked the zoning board to consider the rights of taxpaying homeowners. Williams said the community was negatively impacted by the mosque when it came to Westbury 25 years ago and she feels the same thing is going to happen should the application be granted. “This is not the right location for expansion,” Williams told the zoning board. “This is a quiet residential neighborhood. It is not a question of race or religion. This is an economic issue; property values will plummet.”
Genevieve Morales of Frances Drive added, “This is not about the mosque or religion, it’s about impact. It’s not about ethnicity of the people who attend the mosque. This is a small residential area. It’s about building a three-story building in a residential neighborhood. If they want to expand, they should do it somewhere else.”
Aubrey Baker, a 39-year resident of Talbot Drive, echoed the sentiment, stating. “I am not against the expansion, just don’t do it here. Do it somewhere else. Don’t build it in our neighborhood.”
Ultimately, the final decision regarding the parking variance falls in the hands of the village’s zoning board of appeals. According to zoning board officials, the current application is not acceptable and ICLI is being asked to scale down the plans. A hearing is expected to resume Nov. 16 and Ahmed is hopeful “it will all work out.”
According to Mayor Peter Cavallaro, who was present for the meeting, “The zoning board has a number of serious issues and considerations to review. I know that they will do so in a diligent and appropriate manner.” Cavallaro added, “The community members who spoke raised a number of important concerns that need to be addressed, and I am certain that the applicant will want to be as responsive as possible in order to be respectful of those concerns.”