Planning Board Approves Special Permit For Village Mosque

Aug012014
mosque_120Following a public hearing Monday the Village of Lansing Planning Board approved a special permit to build a mosque on Graham Road.  The 4,828 square foot Al-Huda Islamic Center of the Finger Lakes mosque is planned for a .95 acre parcel, north of the Cayuga Mall, across the street from the Swarthout Coaches bus facility.  Al-Huda Islamic Center Committee Vice President and Treasurer Ahmed H. Ahmed says the facility will serve the local Muslim community that is made up primarily of students and faculty at Cornell, Ithaca College and TC3.

"Muslims need a place to gather and have an identity, and in addition their children have the right to learn and practice their true Islamic religion," Ahmed said.  "And it is also to break the feeling of being a minority as Islamic people in Ithaca or the surrounding area.  This location will allow will allow the Muslim community at Cornell, Ithaca and others to have easy access to a central location."

Ahmed says the local Muslims community can't afford to sustain an Imam (a Muslim priest), but the mosque will provide a central social, educational and administrative center that will provide a focus for the community and provide a meeting place for guest speakers that they hope will enhance relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Al-Huda Committee President Mossad Abd-Elghany told the Planning Board that it is important for young Muslims to learn about their religion face to face with responsible adults, rather than from the Internet.

"There is no common place to practice our religion," Ahmed said.  "We usually rent a room at Cornell to meet for Friday prayer.  There is no Islamic center in Tompkins County."

That room will be retained for daily prayers, which is expected to mitigate demand for the mosque during the week.

mosque_ahmed400Ahmed H. Ahmed presents plans for a mosque to the Village of Lansing Planning Board

Ahmed presented plans that show the mosque set back from the road in the wooded lot.  A driveway leads to a parking lot on the far side of the mosque.  The two-story plan shows a decorative entryway leading to a large prayer room with storage and restrooms on the ground floor.  The basement will hold four classrooms, kitchen and administrative offices.  An attractive minaret, traditionally a tower with a balcony from which Muslims are called to prayer, is planned next to the main building if the committee can raise the money to build it.

Neighbors Robert Swarthout, James Lorbeer, Michael Auerbach raised concerns about increased traffic and especially street parking in an area neighbors fear is already dangerous for residents when people park on the street.  The proposed location is part of a curve on Graham Road.  Planning Board Chairman Mario Tomei said he would like to impose a ban on street-parking as a condition of the special permit.  Such a condition was imposed on the Vineyard Church of Ithaca when they converted a space in Bishop's Small Mall for a church.

But Village Attorney David Dubow said the only way to impose a ban on street parking in this case would be for the Board of Trustees to amend current Village traffic law.  Planning Board member Phil Dankert agreed that on-street parking causes safety concerns and suggested that the Planning Board recommend that the Village trustees change the law.

Code Enforcement Officer Marty Moseley noted that 34 proposed parking spaces exceeds the number of spaces required by the Village for the expected numbers of people who will attend the mosque in its busiest times.  Abd-Elghany added said that because the majority of attendees are students that many will use public transportation to come to worship.

Ahmed said that the Al-Huda committee wants to maintain a good relationship with neighbors, and noted that the congregation would not produce significant noise or alter the aesthetic appeal of the neighborhood.  He said that there would be no street parking.

Lorbeer also expressed a strong concern that changes to the layout of the property could cause storm water issues to residents on Dart Drive, down stream from the mosque location.  But Village Engineer Brent Cross said that the building is not expected to change the water flow in the stream, and said that storm water review is a significant part of the special permit process.  He said he would carefully review the project storm water plan to insure compliance with DEC requirements.

mosque_rendering400An artist's rendering shows the entrance to the mosque from the parking lot

Ahmed estimated that the local Muslim community numbers just under 300, but estimated that attendance at the mosque would be about a third of that number, even during important holidays.  Neighbor concerns about the mosque community growing and exceeding the parking capacity were raised.  But committee members said that the majority of Muslims in Tompkins County are  part of the transient student population, so while participants are expected to change, numbers will probably remain constant.

Devout Muslims pray five times a day.  Committee members estimate that only 20 people will attend daily prayers at the new mosque, and a weekly Friday afternoon prayer meeting will attract between 40 to 80 people.  Additional social meetings and religious school classes are expected to attract between 20 to 40 people.  Largest gatherings of about 100 are expected on the two major Islamic festivals, Eid al-Fitr, the 'breaking of the fast' that concluded Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, the 'feast of sacrifice'.

"The project goal is to have a mosque, to provide a permanent place for daily, weekly and yearly prayer, to enable Muslim families to gather and have their identity, and learn the true Islamic practices at all levels through the teachings of the Holy Book Quran and also the teachings of the prophets," Ahmed said.  "And also to reach out to non-Muslims who are seeking to understand the true Islamic religion."

The Planning Board unanimously approved the special permit application with ten conditions that are standard in such cases.  Tomei noted that further review and more detailed plans will need approval before construction may begin, including final parking, storm drainage and planting plans.

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