Council Answers Questions About Mosque

By on March 21, 2018

Verona Town CouncilMost of Monday night’s Town Council meeting was devoted to the introduction of the 2018 municipal budget, which will be less than had been envisioned in the budget workshop earlier this month. But the Council also responded to questions about the mosque that is to open at 56 Grove Avenue in the former Congregation Beth Ahm synagogue.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Verona resident George DePaul asked the Council to explain how the transition to a mosque came about since he recalled that the town had had plans to buy the site. “What transpired that the town did not retain the property,” he asked.  DePaul, who noted that he had worked in the Newark Police Department’s traffic division, also asked about the traffic impact of the new congregation and wanted to know whether the Council’s decision to try to buy the property had been unanimous. 

Township Manager Matt Cavallo said in response that after the Council learned that the property was for sale last year, it had two discussions about it in closed session before introducing two ordinances at its April 17, 2017 meeting to  purchase the property. On May 1, 2017 the then sitting Council unanimously approved both ordinances. The previous council consisted of Kevin Ryan, Michael Nochimson and Alex Roman, who still serve on the Council, and now former members Jay Sniatkowski and Bob Manley.

“If you followed Council activities, the five of us never agreed on anything before that vote and I’m not trying to be facetious,” said Kevin Ryan, who now serves as mayor. “We had very big philosophical differences on many issues, but as Mr. Cavallo mentioned we just felt that purchasing the property was the right thing to do because we wanted to have control over what went on there.” Ryan noted that the Council was looking at moving the Verona Rescue Squad to 56 Grove Avenue “because it was, and is, in an inferior building on Church Street.” But, he added, the Council could have done other things with the property as well. The surrounding area is zoned residential, so the Council could have decided to demolish the former synagogue, subdivide the property and put houses on it.

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But Ryan said that the Council was never able to act on those options because residents in the area circulated a petition that would have forced the Council to put its decision up for a referendum before it could complete the purchase. Holding a referendum would have cost the town $25,000 and would have forced Congregation Beth Ahm to hold off on its sale for at least 60 days while the vote was being carried out. “There was no guarantee at that point that the referendum would passed,” Ryan said, adding that the synagogue had other parties interested in purchasing it. When the town rescinded its purchase, 56 Grove Avenue was purchased by private developer, who is now the seller to the Verona Islamic Center, which is also known as the Ebadul Rahman Islamic Center.

Regarding the parking and traffic issues, Cavallo said that current case law does not allow parking to be considered as a “compelling government issue”. “There could be no parking there and because parking is not to be considered when dealing with religious land use approvals, we’re sort of stuck,” he added.

Ryan said that Islamic Center had exchanged two memos with the town asking officials to clarify under what conditions the property could be used. “We said that the property could be grandfathered as a house of worship as long as the sale was completed within 12 months of it stopped being used by the temple,” he said. “That condition was met.”

The second issue, Cavallo said, pertained to a rumor on social media that the property was going to be used as a school. “It was confirmed to us by their attorney that it was only to be used as a house of worship,” Cavallo said. Councilman Roman added that any “intensification” of the use would be subject to a decision by the Board of Adjustment because it would require a variance.

Ryan also addressed another rumor that has been circulating. “There’s another rumor that, for some reason, they offered to sell it back to the town,” Ryan said of the developers. “Well I’m sure that if we would have paid $250,000 more than we would have paid had we been allowed to go through with the purchase that they probably would have done that. But we don’t feel that it would have been responsible on our part to go $250,000 more to allow a developer or speculator to do that.”

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“When the residents came up here,” Ryan added, referring to the questions that had been put to the Council during its planned purchase last year, “I said, ‘you have a choice. You can either trust your town government to do the right thing for you or you can take your chances on a developer or speculator’. They chose to take their chances on a developer or speculator, and as far as we are concerned, it’s out of our hands.”

“We will make sure that the new occupants of the mosque abide by all the regulations that we have concerning houses of worship,” said Ryan, before echoing a statement that Councilman Ted Giblin made earlier in the meeting. “We will welcome them as a member of the community.”

The discussion of the Verona Islamic Center begins at the 2 hour 19 minute mark of the video below. In the current format for public comments, all questions are asked first and then the Council answers, so the response to questions about the Islamic Center begin at the 2 hour 24 minute mark.

Read more about the sale and redevelopment of 56 Grove Avenue:

  1. Town Eyes Buying Synagogue Property
  2. Town Buys Synagogue Property, Leaves Future Usage Open
  3. Petition Drive Scuttles Verona’s Purchase Of Synagogue Property
  4. Developer Eyes 3 Options For Synagogue Property
  5. Mosque To Open In Former Synagogue
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