After a contentious, five-and-a-half hour meeting, the Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment voted down a proposal for a Muslim community center at 109 East 24th St.
Problems began before the meeting was even officially underway, with Muslims who engaged in prayer inside the Bayonne High School auditorium receiving criticism from some of their peers.
In front of a crowd of about 500 people, John McDonough, the planner for the project, testified that most of the residents’ concerns regarding worship had been taken into consideration.
“The site, as I said, continues to be appropriate for this use, notwithstanding the fact that that building is within the 30-foot setback. There are no physical changes associated with this building,” he explained.
“We’re not going to see bells, we’re not going to see ornamentation, they’re not going to be calls: the public had concerns about vocalization or some sort of prayer calls – that’s been testified that that won’t happen here.”
However, residents such as Melanie Flora that live in close proximity to the project were far from convinced.
McDonough said that the proposed fence portion of the project is a buffer since it “meets the screening intent of the ordinance,” causing Flora to get angry.
“We’re not looking at the building: my backyard is six inches to the plastic fence, the place where you want to talk about putting all these cars,” she said to applause from the crowd.
Joe Wisniewski, an outspoken critic of the project since day 1, questioned McDonough on several issues such as the fact that a 189-unit project was recently approved in the area where the community center would be built.
Wisniewski was briefly tossed from the meeting for speaking out of turn, though he was allowed back in when public comment began.
Tensions continued to rise during public comment, as residents clashed on what the real issues with the project were.
“I’m not proud to live in the town of Bayonne. We really have to have a meeting whether or not to build a mosque here or not,” stated 15-year-old city resident Isaiah Otero.
“And you guys say it’s only about parking, but it’s congested here in Bayonne in general, there’s like 60,000 people here, there’s no parking on my block, either.”
Peter Cresci, a longtime critic of the Mayor Jimmy Davis administration, recognized that not everyone’s opinion was a valid one, but the facts still speak for themselves.
“So, you have our city engineers that have worked diligently and told you that this application does not apply. You have a due process problem,” Cresci began.
“In January of 2016, Mr. Akbar testified. He testified to different services starting at 6:15 a.m., noon, in the afternoon, 5 and 5:15 [p.m.], 7:30 and 7:50 [p.m.]. The problem you have, according to Mr. McDonough, all the application has changed.”
Ali Hassan, a Bayonne resident and graduate of the local high school, said he never felt this “divisiveness” growing up in the Peninsula City, where no one ever thought of him as a Muslim, and that he and his friends only wanted to build new relationships in the community.
After a resident riled up the Muslim portion of the crowd by reading an interpretation of the Quran, Zoning Board President Mark Urban disallowed any more comments about religion.
Finally, around 11:40 p.m., the board voted 4-3 on the resolution, which meant the measure failed since at least five affirmative votes were needed.
In two separate statements, Davis and Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti said they anticipate the decision will be appealed.
“The decision of the Zoning Board can be appealed in Superior Court. We must respect the right of the applicant to appeal this case, and I would ask everyone to be civil and patient as this matter may be entering a new phase in the court system,” Davis said, adding that many based their opposition to the project on race and religion.
“Yesterday, the Bayonne Zoning Board of Adjustment voted down the application to develop the Bayonne Muslim Community Center. I anticipate that this decision will be appealed; therefore, I will not comment further on their actions,” Chiaravalloti noted.