The Hillside Islamic Center plans to appeal last week’s unanimous ruling by Town of North Hempstead board of zoning appeals denying an application for a variance that would have permitted the center to demolish a house it owns on Second Street to create more parking space for members of the center.
Approval of the variance – a source of heated controversy among New Hyde Park residents – would have enabled the center to create 18 additional parking spaces to accommodate its growing membership. Residents said they feared that the variance would have set a precedent, and suspected that the Islamic Center intended to purchase more houses in the neighborhood to open more parking spaces.
In its written decision on the case, the board cited town law, noting that the applicant must show “unnecessary hardship” and demonstrate several stipulations, including “that the requested use variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood.”
In its conclusions, the board said, “While the apoplicant’s stated purpose of relieving its neighbors of the burden of on-street parking may be commendable, the additional off-street parking, in excess of the requirements of the Code, is not required for the Center.”
The members of the zoning board of appeals has a policy to not discuss their decisions with the media.
A source close to the zoning board said that changing the use of the property from residential to commercial in a neighborhood composed of residential properties is something the board would never be likely to approve.
“If you could pick up parking that you need by buying houses and knocking them down, that would pick apart a residential neighborhood,” the source said.
The source said that an appeal to the Nassau County Supreme Court would be a “futile effort” in this case.
“We’re not going to give up,” said Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, one of the Hillside Islamic Center’s leaders, who said the center planned to appeal the ruling and reach out to the community members to seek an amicable resolution.
“We’ll meet with the communities and hope to address the concerns that we have,” Bhuiyan said.
Bhuiyan said he felt the center had not presented its case effectively, and hopes to convey center’s objectives more effectively.
“We’re misunderstood,” he said. “It was not reallly addressed properly. There were some things that maybe could have been handled differently.”
Representing the Islamic Center at the September hearing, attorney Raymond Smolenski said the Islamic Center had no plans to create more parking spaces. Smolenski declined to comment on the case until he had a chance to review a copy of the board’s decision
An appeal of the ruling could be filed in Nassau County Supreme Court within four months of the board of zoning appeals decision. The court could then issue a ruling on it, or remand the case to the town zoning board of appeals for a second review.
More than 150 New Hyde Park residents attended the September hearing on the variance and Third Street resident Edward Weiss had presented a petition to the zoning board signed by 800 residents who opposed the board giving the Islamic Center the variance.
Civic associations led the opposition at the September hearing with e-mail alerts, and expressed approval of the zoning board’s decision to turn down the center’s variance request.
“The New Hyde Park community applauds the town for denying the variance to convert the lot from residential to a parking lot,” said Marianna Wohlgemuth, president of the Lakeville Estates Civic Associaiton. “This was not about religion. This was about changing the nature of the community. We vigorously oppose any change that would disrupt the town.”
Wohlgemuth said that the idea of effectively rezoning residential property for commercial would only put further stress on New Hyde Park at a time when there is a shortage in available housing.
Wohlgemuth expressed the consensus view of residents who objected to the variance in saying that she’s certain the Islamic Center also would seek to demolish two other houses it has bought in the area with the intention of ultimately expanding its space.
“Their motives are not pure,” Wohlgemuth said.
Wohlgemuth suggested that since most of the center’s members live in Herrricks, they should look to relocate the center there.
Bhuiyan acknowledged that communications sent by members of the Islamic Center without knowledge of the center’s leadership had been a source of misunderstanding about the center’s intentions.
At the September hearing, Jim McHugh, president of the New Hyde Park Civic Association, introduced a letter into evidence that was sent to residents in September 2009 by Mohammed Kahn, a trustee of the center, to several residents in the neighborhood requesting a meeting to discuss acquiring their properties. Kahn was named as the applicant in the zoning board case.
“We can and will build around you if necessary but would prefer not to do so to maintain the good relationship that we enjoyed over the past few years,” the letter stated.