Hillside Islamic Center seeking legal recourse to fight town decision

Hillside Islamic Center seeking legal recourse to fight town decision
The Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park. (Photo courtesy of the Hillside Islamic Center)

The Hillside Islamic Center’s chairman said the mosque is consulting attorneys about legal recourse in response to the town board striking down its site plan proposal, claiming the town’s reasoning is unfounded and inhibits the ability to worship.

After more than seven months of public hearings, the Town of North Hempstead voted along party lines last Tuesday night to deny the Hillside Islamic Center’s expansion plan.

The town cited a “concern for safety” in its rejection of the plan because the center’s Friday’s services create traffic congestion in the neighborhood.

Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, chairman of the mosque’s Board of Trustees, said the center is talking to its attorneys about taking legal action following the decision, which will make worshipping harder for the congregants. He pointed out the proposal was compliant with the town’s code, did not require any variances and was put forward when there were not of unsafe incidents.

“We worry the council members’ “concern for safety” is not based on facts but is instead being used as pretext to deny this community the opportunity to support its congregation,” Bhuiyan said in a letter to Blank Slate Media last Thursday.

Bhuiyan said the town’s decision was based on speculations, not fact, leaving the mosque feeling treated unequally and violated.

The Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park had proposed a plan to enlarge the existing mosque by building a third story on the two-story structure and increasing the square footage from 5,428 square feet to 6,600 square feet.

The proposal also included expanding the center’s parking lot onto the three surrounding parcels of land, which the mosque purchased, to provide 63 parking spaces. The expansion was intended to relieve congregation and ease traffic impacts on the neighborhood.

The town Republicans – Councilmembers Ed Scott, Dennis Walsh, David Adhami and Supervisor Jennifer DeSena – tied their negative vote to concerns for public safety and calls for more action to address the current issues at hand.

Democratic Councilmembers Robert Troiano and Christine Liu voted to accept the proposal, with Councilmember Mariann Dalimonte abstaining.

Liu, when explaining her vote to approve the proposal, said Town Attorney Richard Nicolello advised them that rejecting the application might be considered discriminatory.

Nicolello denied saying the vote could be considered discriminatory, calling it an “inaccurate summary.”

Legal questions surrounding the proposal were discussed during an executive session called during the public hearing.

“Religious freedom is a very important tenant of our society,” said Kathleen Deegan Dickson, the center’s attorney, at the hearing. “Local governments have a right, have an obligation to not make the practice of one’s religion more burdensome. We’re trying to make the practice of their religion less burdensome not only for themselves but for the neighborhood.”

Bhuiyan expressed confusion over the decision in his letter to Blank Slate Media.

“After being members of the greater community for more than 18 years with no safety issues and appearing for many public hearings to address concerns, we find the council persons’ no votes puzzling,” Bhuiyan said. “During these 18-plus years, we have eagerly worked with concerned members of the community to address any concerns, and we will continue to do so.”

The proposal faced opposition from its surrounding neighbors throughout the public hearing process, with 16 residents speaking Tuesday night who all opposed the expansion and urged the board to vote “no.”

Many of the concerns of the residents focused on the mosque’s Friday services when it hosts the most congregants during its afternoon prayer session and the traffic congestion that it causes.

“We live with it every Friday afternoon,” neighboring resident Joe D’Amico said. “It’s like we get a swarm.”

Bhuiyan denounced the “swarm” claims made by the neighbor, saying they are discriminatory and not a true depiction of events at the mosque.

“We doubt that members of any religious organization, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, in fact, any human would appreciate being described in such a way,” Bhuiyan said. “We sincerely hope council persons’ no votes were not based on the racist and bigoted comments of so-called neighbors who call God’s worshipers a ‘swarm.’”

One of the main issues expressed by residents was mosque congregants parking illegally in surrounding areas, sometimes blocking neighbors’ driveways and parking in local shopping center parking lots.

Residents said they were also concerned about public safety, with the congregants’ parking potentially preventing emergency vehicles from accessing the neighborhood’s narrow roads or blocking residents’ cars in their driveways.

Bhuiyan countered these claims, saying that there has not been a traffic incident nor a complaint that emergency vehicles could not pass through the streets surrounding the mosque. He added that the mosque’s traffic safety study confirmed there are no traffic or safety concerns with their stricken proposal.

Some residents at the decisive public hearing expressed unease that the mosque is drawing in congregants from outside the community, specifically from Queens. Bhuiyan said that congregants reside in more than 50 homes in the neighborhood, and those members have been asked to walk to prayer services to ease traffic congestion.

The Islamic Center has also made steps to address the concerns of their neighbors, such as adding a Friday prayer service to spread out the arrival and departure of congregants, offering some services at a secondary location at the Elks Lodge and hiring an outside security company to police parking throughout the neighborhood.

Bhuiyan said the mosque also began letting congregants park on the center’s dirt lots adjacent to the mosque during Friday services without a permit. Residents then reported them to the town for violations.

“First they want good for the community, at the same time they want to make Hillside Islamic Center’s life miserable,” Bhuiyan said.

With many resident complaints focused on the traffic issues caused by the mosque’s congregants, Bhuiyan said the site plan proposal was aimed at addressing those issues by providing more parking to lessen congestion and additional curb cuts to enhance traffic flow.

Deegan-Dickson told the board that the site plan proposal was not designed to expand the congregation, but rather to accommodate the size of its current makeup.

Bhuiyan expanded upon this, affirming there are no plans to begin a full-time school at the mosque. It currently provides five daily prayers, Sunday school and afternoon classes four days a week.

Despite the disapproval of its site plan, Bhuiyan said the mosque will continue working with its neighbors to resolve any issues and listen to their concerns.

“Please step forward, we look forward to working with and welcoming you,” Bhuiyan said.

The chairman thanked the community members who pre-date the mosque’s establishment and who have helped them feel welcome in the neighborhood.

“This is our community, we are proud to be here,” Bhuiyan said. “We respect the right of everyone to pray and to worship. We only ask for the same simple courtesy.”

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