Would the North Hempstead Town Council have rejected the Hillside Islamic Center’s expansion plans last week if they were made by a church or a synagogue or a Sikh temple?
That’s the uncomfortable question raised by the Town Council’s 4-2 vote along party lines to reject the center’s application to build a third floor and add 63 parking spaces to its facility along Hillside Avenue in New Hyde Park.
The third story falls within the town building code, the Building Department had agreed on the allowable space and parking spots provided by the center and a traffic study by Greenman-Pederson said there were no traffic or safety concerns with the plans.
But the four Republican council members, including North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, opposed the center’s proposal, citing traffic and safety concerns.
Two Democratic council members – Robert Troiano and Christine Liu – voted to approve the proposal with Council member Mariann Dalimonte abstaining.
Troiano said he voted to approve the proposal as it was within the town’s building code and did not require any variances.
He had faith, he said, in the town’s Building Department, which had approved the plan, to ensure the construction was compliant and safe.
Dalimonte said she voted to abstain because she was “second-guessing” how to vote after Republican Town Council member David Adhami voted against the proposal.
Adhami, Dalimonte said, was closest to the issue since the center was part of his district before redistricting and he was heavily involved in the application process.
The Islamic Center’s proposal faced opposition from its surrounding neighbors with 16 residents who all opposed the expansion speaking during the public comment period.
Some residents cited concerns about mosque congregants parking illegally in surrounding areas, sometimes blocking neighbors’ driveways and parking in local shopping center parking lots.
The neighbors said they were also concerned about public safety, saying congregants parking around the mosque would potentially prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the neighborhood’s narrow roads or block residents’ cars in their driveways.
Former civic association leader Marietta DiCamillo said the neighborhood was “too small, too busy, too residential, too narrow-streeted,” saying it is unable to support the current mosque let alone its proposed expansion.
“We live in the suburbs,” DiCamillo said, “and would like to maintain it.”
But this seemed to ignore the center’s plans to add 63 parking places intended to take congregants’ cars off local streets and the history of the Islamic Center.
“In the 18+ years that worshipers have been congregating at Hillside Islamic Center, there has never been a single traffic incident at the mosque, the adjacent parking lots or the adjacent streets,” Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, the center’s chairman of the Board of Trustees, said in a letter published in this week’s Blank Slate Media’s six newspapers. “There has never been a single complaint that emergency vehicles could not pass freely on the adjacent streets due to our worshipers coming to pray.”
This kind of resident opposition is common for almost all developments on the North Shore – whether for schools, churches, retail stores and residential development.
DiCamillo’s comments can be interpreted in different ways, but an anti-Muslim bias was raised when one resident described congregants attending religious services on Friday afternoons as a “swarm.”
This is a word associated with insects, implying that these the congregants were less than human.
“We doubt that members of any religious organization, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, in fact, any human would appreciate being described” as a “swarm,” Bhuiyan said.
Bhuiyan noted that there are several, much larger religious institutions in the area including Notre Dame, which takes up an entire block in New Hyde Park.
“We are certain the congregants do not “swarm” their neighbors or cause traffic and safety issues,” Bhuiyan said.
Bhuiyan’s concerns are supported by the history of the center – and the treatment of Muslims in the country in general.
The mosque at 300 Hillside Ave. took over an abandoned one-story building covered with grass in 2005.
Neighbors objected a few years later when the center purchased four homes from adjacent neighbors to expand the mosque’s parking lot and to the height of the four decorative minarets on the building.
The town’s Board of Zoning Appeals – in the face of resident opposition – rejected the mosque’s expansion plan in 2010, saying its proximity to homes conflicted with zoning rules.
But the center was able to move forward under a federal law that relaxes zoning restrictions for houses of worship in residential neighborhoods.
That law, the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, was passed unanimously by Congress in 2000.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the approval followed “hearings in which Congress found that houses of worship, particularly those of minority religions and start-up churches, were disproportionately affected, and in fact often were actively discriminated against, by local land use decisions.”
The Justice Department went on to say that “Congress further found that zoning authorities frequently were placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations to exercise their faiths in violation of the Constitution.”
It is worth noting that this discrimination took place before 9/11 and the rise of anti-Islamic feelings in this country.
Then U.S. Rep. Peter King, a former Nassau County comptroller and Town of Hempstead councilman, frequently targeted Muslims as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
He held hearings on Muslim “radicalization” in 2011 and said in 2016 he had pressured President-elect Donald Trump to implement a nationwide surveillance program directed at Muslim Americans.
Trump had campaigned on a ban of Muslims entering the country and would implement a six-month ban on people coming into the United States from six Muslim-majority countries upon being elected that was later stricken by federal courts.
A proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from the site of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center also faced heated opposition before finally being approved in 2011.
Muslim Americans, as well as Jews, are now facing increased bias attacks following Hamas’ barbarous attack on Israelis that killed 1,200 people and the taking of 240 hostages and Israel’s response in Gaza that has claimed the lives of 27,000 Palestinians.
Trump, who is now the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, has vowed to bar refugees from Gaza and immediately expand his first-term Muslim travel ban if he wins a second term.
The war in Gaza and the future of Israel has also figured prominently in the race between former Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, and Republican Nassau County Legislator Mazi Malesa Pilip, in their race for George Santos’ 3rd Congressional seat.
So, is it a coincidence that the four town council members who voted against the Hillside Islamic Center are Republicans? Maybe. Maybe not.
We would just suggest that the Hillside Islamic Center not bring any further applications before the town board during a hotly contested congressional race.
In his letter to Blank Slate Media, Bhuiyan said DeSena had asked the Islamic center to meet with residents and community leaders to address any concerns in seeking approval a second time.
We, in turn, ask that DeSena and her fellow council members treat the Islamic Center the same way they would treat any other religious center the next time they come before the board with a proposal.