Town hires law firm in Hillside Islamic Center lawsuit to reverse board’s denial

Town hires law firm in Hillside Islamic Center lawsuit to reverse board’s denial
The Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park. (Photo courtesy of the Hillside Islamic Center)

The Town of North Hempstead hired an outside law firm Tuesday night after a lawsuit was filed by the Hillside Islamic Center challenging the board’s decision to deny its site plan proposal earlier this year.

The lawsuit is requesting a reversal of the town’s decision and to grant it site plan approval.

The hiring was approved along party lines, with only board Republicans voting in favor. The town’s Republicans – including Supervisor Jennifer DeSena – were also the only board members to vote to deny the Islamic Center’s application.

Councilmember Robert Troiano voted against hiring the law firm, alongside his fellow Democrats on the board, saying it is an unnecessary expense. Councilmember Mariann Dalimonte said she voted against the hiring as she favored keeping the litigation in-house as hiring an outside firm would be an additional expense to taxpayers.

Councilmember Ed Scott voted in favor of the hiring because it will “take in consideration” the wants of the town’s constituents.

“Sometimes the Town Board has to turn around and say ‘you know what? We’re going to get sued over it and we’re going to get brought into court, I’m going to stick up for my constituents first,’” Scott said.

The Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park had proposed a plan to enlarge the existing 5,428 square-foot, two-floor mosque by building a three-story, 6,600 square-foot addition.

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 Jan. 30 decision came after seven months of public hearings addressing the center’s site plan application, which was riddled with opposition from surrounding neighbors.

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

Troiano and fellow Democrat Councilmember Christine Liu voted to accept the proposal.  Democrat Councilmember Dalimonte abstained.

The lawsuit called the decision “political appeasement.”

The petition filed on Feb. 23 alleges that the Town Board “exceeded its power” in denying the application, alleging it is unable to “ prohibit a lawful use of property that meets the
criteria of Town Code.”

The center’s proposal was compliant with the town’s code and did not require any variances.

“Respondent thus acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable manner in failing to approve Petitioner’s application for site plan approval for the Amended Project,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that the board’s decision was not supported by expert opinion but rather by community opposition, calling its determination “arbitrary, capricious and irrational.”

The Islamic Center’s Board of Trustees chairman Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan previously told Blank Slate Media the town’s decision was not based on facts, leaving the mosque feeling treated unequally and violated.

The lawsuit claims that the town’s decision harms the Islamic Center’s congregation in its ability to use the place of worship. Bhuiyan previously told Blank Slate Media the town’s decision makes worshipping more difficult for congregants.

“Under New York law, religious use of property is presumptively beneficial to the community and is entitled to preferential treatment in land use determinations, pursuant to which municipalities must strive to exercise greater flexibility when considering an application for religious use and make every effort to accommodate religious use,” the lawsuit states. “Respondent’s Resolution failed to comply with, or even acknowledge, the presumption and preference that should have been afforded to Petitioner’s religious use, and therefore must be reversed.”

The petition also claims that the Town has not filed a written decision with the Building Commissioner explaining the board’s decision in denying the application, which the center is alleging violates the Town’s code.

“There is nothing in the record or in the application that would warrant or justify the denial of the Petitioner’s site plan application for the Amended Project,” the lawsuit states.

The Town opted to hire Uniondale-based law firm Sahn Ward Braff Koblenz Coschignano PLLC in the land use litigation. Town attorney Richard Nicolello said they were selected from a panel adopted by the Town and were chosen from that panel due to their expertise.

Nicolello said the firm has already begun working on the case, with the approval Tuesday night granting the agreement retroactive to Feb. 15.

The law firm will cost the Town $265 an hour for all the attorneys on the case.

The Hillside Islamic Center is being represented by Forchelli Deegan Terrana LLP in the lawsuit, the same firm that represented them in the pursuit to get their site plan approved by the town.

Nicolello said the finding of facts will be presented at the board’s next meeting on March 12.

In other news, the board’s Republicans voted against Troiano hiring a new administrative assistant for his office, which led to the councilman walking out of the meeting after the vote was taken.

“I take offense to me, personally, to my district, that I can’t hire a person I want,” Troiano said. “I can’t imagine what objection Mr. Scott has to my hiring of my own person.”

Both Troiano and Dalimonte said the decision by the town’s Republicans is nothing they have seen before while serving on the board.

No board member explained why they voted against the hiring.

The Town of North Hempstead Board will reconvene March 12 for a public hearing at 10 a.m.

This story has been updated. An original version of this story said the Hillside Islamic Center’s proposal was to increase the building from 5,428 square feet to 6,600 square feet, which is incorrect. The proposal is for a three-story addition of 6,600 square feet.

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  1. The increase is 6,600, a DOUBLING of the current not 5,428 to 6,600 as you have indicated twice. It’s a huge expansion.


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