The South Valley Islamic Community sees the county’s ultimate approval of their permit to build a mosque and cemetery in San Martin as a mixed blessing, as they still feel the restrictions imposed on the site will infringe on their constitutional rights to freely practice their religion.
Meanwhile, South Santa Clara County residents opposed to the project see the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous 5-0 vote Tuesday to accept the site’s planned use as a loss to the 7,000-person rural community – and some say they will seek legal action to prohibit the religious institution’s plans to build a new place of worship.
The supervisors approved the site permit for the proposed Cordoba Center property on Monterey Road with the conditions recommended by the county planning commission when it approved the permit last month.
At the same time Tuesday, the supervisors also denied three appeals to the planning commission’s Aug. 2 decision.
One of those appeals was filed by the project developer. The SVIC thinks the permit conditions – which include limiting the number of “special events” that might draw up to 150 people - will limit the Muslim congregation’s constitutional right to practice religion.
The Supervisors’ decision followed more than two hours of presentations by the appellants, public testimony and board discussion. More than 30 members of the public spoke, expressing a mix of strong views.
One SVIC member said opponents of the project are “grasping at straws” by claiming the project is in violation of land use and environmental codes despite numerous studies and reports that prove that’s not the case.
Those opposed to the project continued to state they are not satisfied with studies that show the Cordoba Center will pose no significant impacts on groundwater, traffic and noise in the area.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents South County, noted that after reviewing a stack of paperwork outlining numerous impact studies on the site, the planning commission’s decision was not in violation of existing land-use policies as two of the appellants argued.
However, he said he is “disappointed” that the developer appealed its own permit, suggesting the SVIC was seeking fundamental last-minute changes.
“In this case, the applicant got what they asked for, and then they’re appealing it,” Wasserman said. “That didn’t seem right to me.”
The project, which has generated heated controversy in recent months, is proposed on a 15-acre site on Monterey Road, just north of the intersection of California Avenue. Included is a 5,000-square-foot prayer hall, 2,800-square-foot multi-purpose hall, a two-acre cemetery, and open space.
In its appeal, the SVIC did not seek a reversal of the planning commission’s approval, but modifications to some of the restrictions.
Specifically, they sought approval for allowing daily attendance of up to 150 people at the site, allowing overnight accommodations for security staff or overnight events, and increasing the size of the multi-purpose hall to 5,000 square feet.
The planning commission restricted the site to maximum daily attendance of 80, with only four events per year accommodating up to 150 people.
SVIC members argued that the project should be looked at as any other church seeking permission to build a place of worship.
“Have you ever heard of a church that can only have four special events per year?” SVIC member Hamdy Abbass said after the meeting.
County planning staff’s recommendation to limit daily attendance to 80 was based on the SVIC’s estimates, and the projected design and size of the septic system.
These changes are in line with what SVIC originally proposed last year, SVIC spokeswoman Melindah Bush said.
“We are not asking you to change laws – just to apply the existing law fairly on us as you would on a church,” Bush said.
County staff added that there remain administrative and public processes through which the developer can gain approval for these desired changes, and SVIC members said they will likely pursue that process.
Two more appeals to the Cordoba Center also heard asked supervisors to reject the use permit outright.
The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance appealed the project based on what its representatives said were violations of public noticing and county land-use guidelines. Plus, they contended the proposed project does not adhere to county general plan policies that require “local serving” uses on non-commercial, non-residential projects.
“We’re only asking you to follow your own plans, and ensure residents of San Martin can enjoy the same rural character (we enjoy),” SMNA member Michael Brookman said.
Another appeal was filed by a group known as the People’s Coalition for Government Accountability. Represented by their attorney Dan De Vries at Tuesday’s meeting. The PCGA also claimed the Cordoba Center proposal violates a number of county land use, zoning and general plan policies.
In recent months residents have cited a number of potential impacts of allowing the Cordoba Center to proceed. These predominantly relate to possible groundwater contamination from the proposed cemetery, and stormwater runoff which some fear could result in flooding during heavy rains.
County staff and consultants conducted a series of studies that found the area where the cemetery and buildings are proposed can support the project with no foreseeable significant impacts on the environment, traffic, or noise.
Many of these complaints were repeated during public comments.
Georgine Scott Codiga of Gilroy called the county’s process of studying and approving the project a “disaster” that has been replete with “fraud, discrepancies and multiple code violations.”
She said Wednesday that county staff and the SVIC turned the process into an “emotional issue.” She said the Gilroy/Morgan Hill Patriots political group, of which she is president, is looking into whether or not there are any other legal means for residents to block the project.
“I think it was a sad day for San Martin residents. We found out that the supervisors caved into special interests,” Scott Codiga said.
While some who offered public comments at Tuesday’s meeting suggested that another church – Shadow Mountain Baptist Church in Morgan Hill – applied for a permit to build a church and school at the same site several years ago and was denied, that’s not “technically” true, according to the church’s pastor.
Shadow Mountain pastor Kyle Haynes said in 2007 the church spoke with county staff about their initial plans, but they were “discouraged” from applying for a permit because county staff insisted the soil would not pass percolation tests required for septic systems. Therefore, the church never submitted an application.
Percolation tests eventually conducted on the property found that the area where the SVIC plans to build meets state and county environmental health standards, county staff said Tuesday.
In the SVIC’s rebuttal, Bush added that the Cordoba Center will be a “guardian” of the property, and plans to serve the local community with soup kitchens, charitable events and outreach and education efforts.
“Lifting these restrictions benefits the whole community,” Bush said. “We chose San Martin because it's a quiet rural community. We respect this community because we are part of it.”