In a moment of irony, the creator of a proposed Islamic center are suing Teaneck, which until recently had an Islamic mayor and had the first school district to voluntarily desegregate, for discrimination.
The case involves a school building purchased by the Al Ummah Community Center (AUCC). Without consulting the community, the AUCC painted the building, then done in traditional brick and white stone, a bright blue with gold highlights.
The sale of the Oakdene Avenue building to the AUCC carries some irony in itself, as it belonged to the school district until relatively recently; the district is now paying for construction of new facilities to accommodate a large pre-K program.
The Board of Education sold its Longfellow School to a church in 2013, gaining $1.3 million; the church used it as a day care center, which is AUCC’s goal as well. The church, though, left the exterior of the building in the same condition, and did not have as high an occupancy. The church sold it to the AUCC in 2018 for $4.3 million.
According to the AUCC, when interviewed by NorthJersey.com, zoning restrictions on usage, size, and density are not applicable in public zones; and the former school is in a public zone. The AUCC also claimed that the town’s requirements were not applied to the church.
On the board’s side, the greatly increased usage would require far more parking (from the existing 63-space lot, meant for teachers and staff) to 300 spaces; and residents did not want the extra noise, taffic, and light.
The NorthJersey.com story notes that the AUCC’s claims have changed over time, with the AUCC president stating last year that it was to be a day care and community center with interfaith prayer; and in the suit, calling it a mosque. AUCC president Ray Hassan’s lawsuit seeks approval of the center, as well as damages and attorney’s fees; he told NorthJersey.com that he had put $10 million of his own money into the center.
Back in 2019, Bill Orr wrote that the AUCC’s proposal was for, in their words, “a mixed use building house for a prior approved House of Worship with a proposed community center, a day care and a new 7,650 square foot addition that includes an Olympic pool kiddie pool and Jacuzzi, a new out door play ground, new sports courts with a running track, retaining walls and other improvements/modifications. This property has 3 front yards [and] 1 side yard. Variances required: Use, buffers [and screening], site plan, driveway distance, parking, fence [and] retaining walls.” The application was made on August 10, 2019.
Bill Orr noted in Teaneck Transparency that residents at the meeting objected to substantial increases in traffic, parking shortfalls, and noise and lights from the outdoor sports areas. He pointed out that the construction required several variances:
- Lot coverage (60% allowed, 80% requested)
- Parking (162 required, 64 requested)
- Side yard set back (around 10 feet less than required)
- Height of fence and retaining wall (7 feet more than allowed)
- Driveway (five feet to close to the intersection)
- Use variance from school to community center
The day care center did not require a variance, which seems to argue against the AUCC’s insistence that the church was allowed to do what it wished, which implies that the issue is discrimination. Residents noted that the entrance was on a one-way street with limited parking, while the exist was on another one-way street with limited parking; and that traffic tends to back up at the intersection with Teaneck Road.
AUCC responded at that meeting by pointing out that they would supply a needed swimming pool for the district. Residents asked why the center was needed given Votee and Rodda. There was some discussion about requiring the facility to only be open from, say, 8 am to 10 pm. Forty neighbors were present, by Bill Orr’s count.
Teaneck Transparency continued its coverage in December, posting a two hour video showing, among other things, a revised plan with more parking, a new traffic plan, and fewer outdoor sports fields. Again, around 40 neighbors objected to the plan. The plans clearly reveal something far more extensive and with far more impact on neighbors than a simple religious facility.
Among the errors found by the Board of Adjustment, revealed in the same Teaneck Transparency, article:
- Maximum capacity of 600, far more than the parking or neighborhood could support
- The parking lot had a lane which went directly into parked cars; an exit only 150 feet from Teaneck Road, which would likely cause gridlock; too little space for fire trucks, ambulances, and garbage trucks to get in and out
- Far too little space for pre-K pickup and dropoff
- EPA regulation issues for snow handling
The township had, by then, issued a zoning permit and temporary certificate of occupancy for the pre-K classes. At that time, the developer argued that the town could no longer contest any variances due to the rezoning; the neighbors’ attorney disagreed.
Residents can track the case on Justia. At the moment, the case is waiting for updates to the names of the parties involved.