Updated: Boisterous yelling dominates meeting on mosque - Morgan Hill Times: Community

Updated: Boisterous yelling dominates meeting on mosque

Project goes to county planning commission Thursday

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Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 11:28 pm

Nearly 200 South Santa Clara County residents attended a planning advisory meeting Tuesday night to voice an impassioned mix of concerns, opposition, support and questions regarding the proposed Cordoba Center mosque project which will be considered by the county’s planning commission Thursday.

County staff began the meeting at the Grange Hall in Morgan Hill by announcing they decided since last week to recommend the planning commission postpone the project due to the high volume of concerns submitted by the public. While last week the staff recommended the commission approve the project when it takes up the issue Thursday, on Tuesday they said they will recommend the body continue the  decision in order to allow further studies of the soil permeability and groundwater depth on the 15-acre San Martin site where the South Valley Islamic Center plans to build the Cordoba Center.

But when the meeting turned to the public comment period, in which nearly 30 audience members used their allotted three minutes to voice their objections, support or suggestions for the project, the meeting quickly grew boisterous and, at times, nearly out of control.

Attendees shouted in argument from the audience against speakers whom they disagreed with, and applauded loudly with those they supported.  

While Sal Akhter, SVIC member and Cordoba Center project manager, spoke as the last public commenter, the audience emitted a loud sustain of disapproval as he demonstrated the existing local presence of Muslim residents and activity in San Martin. Akhter was visibly and vocally upset at the reaction and many of the comments that preceded his, and directed his opinion to the audience rather than the committee.

“So much complaints and charges, I don’t where to begin,” said Akhter, who added he has lived in San Martin for 30 years. “We have followed every letter of the law, without a single request for a variance.”

Seated opponents of the project attempted to shout him down, particularly after he exceeded his allotted three-minute speaking limit and the committee allowed him to continue anyway.

“Time!” numerous audience members repeatedly and loudly shouted at the expiration of the clock. Dozens intermittently screamed angry responses to some of his comments.

Committee members made little effort to calm the crowd and allow commenters to speak without interruption.

The audience was standing-room only in the 186-capacity meeting hall, with people spilling out two doors on either side.

Most were against the project, citing the groundwater issue as well as possible impacts on traffic, noise, storm water runoff and flooding, and the Cordoba Center’s capacity to serve local needs in accordance with the county’s general plan. Some speakers even expressed unabashed fear of the Islamic community who plans to make the Cordoba Center their worship headquarters.

Several audience members displayed handmade posters alluding to various complaints about the project, labeling its developers a “special interest,” and asking who would be held liable if the groundwater becomes contaminated.

Situated on a 15-acre property on the 14000 block of Monterey Highway, just north of the intersection of California Avenue, the proposal includes two ranch-style structures - a prayer hall and a community center - as well as a cemetery and open space.

The staff’s lengthy report on the project determined that the Cordoba Center proposal would have no significant impact on any of the areas of concern cited by the public, including groundwater worries even though the staff concluded that a more updated study on that question is needed.

The first speaker following the county staff presentation was Michele Rasner of Gilroy, who prompted obscenities and boos from the crowd as she declared that she thinks the controversy is about religion and discrimination rather than groundwater or traffic related worries.

“Let us find similarities, not differences,” Rasner said.

When a female member of the SVIC addressed the committee next, grumbling moans emanated from the audience as she said, “This is about my civil rights and my children’s civil rights.”

Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of the Gilroy/Morgan Hill Patriots, said she and other residents are “afraid” of the project and they “don’t trust” county staff and county ordinances that will not prohibit construction of the mosque as long as the developer is in compliance.

Joy Schoming, a Gilroy resident, said she objected to the project’s name of Cordoba Center, which refers to an ancient Spanish city. To Schoming, the name also conjures up a Muslim community center formerly known as the Cordoba House that is under development in New York City, and which generated significant controversy when it was in the planning stages.

Schoming and others also worried about the possible noise impact from the facility, suggesting that calls for prayers at other mosques can be noisy.

County staff said no amplified music or speech would be permitted to emanate from the site, and it would be subject to existing noise ordinances.

Other residents at the meeting, who are not affiliated with the SVIC, spoke in support of the project, and argued that it will serve the local community through education efforts, developing a clean and aesthetically pleasing facility, and preserving a large portion of open space on the site.

One man prompted applause from some audience members with comments that speculated the Cordoba Center might be tied to violent offshoots of Islam that promote terrorism.

A number of speakers worried about the possibility that the SVIC’s membership might grow over the years, bringing larger crowds to the Cordoba Center and heightening the impact on traffic, parking, groundwater, noise and other areas of concern.

Current plans have between 30 and 80 people using the facility for daily and periodic religious services and events, plus three events a year that would bring up to 150 people.

In response to the concerns about growth at the facility, county staff said any changes to the site plan and capacity would require future approval.

One member of the SVIC, a Gilroy resident, who did not speak during the public comments said after the meeting that she was “embarrassed” by the audience’s behavior at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Civil discourse is always welcome, but we didn’t see that tonight,” said Shaesta Razaqi. “I’ve never been more embarrassed of my neighbors.”

Nuances of county planning codes discussed

Before and after the public comments, committee members had their own difficult questions for county staff.

In response to the staff’s interpretation of the “local serving” requirement for non-residential uses contained in the county general plan, committee member Sylvia Hamilton said she has never heard the code interpreted that way.

The ordinance, which says that such uses should serve the local community so as not to create undue impacts from outside visitors. Regarding the Cordoba Center project, staff said the intent of the ordinance is simply to ensure the project’s impact is at a minimum.

Plus, when it comes to religious institutions - which are not commonly applied for in San Martin - state and federal laws protecting freedom of religion and assembly trump the county’s land-use guidelines, and staff said the land-use codes cannot legally prohibit people from practicing their religion.

County planner Rob Eastwood added that the planning department has reviewed the local-serving requirement with county counsel, who advised them that it cannot “abridge First Amendment rights” of free speech and freedom of religion.

Eastwood added it would be “impossible” to enforce the local-serving guideline literally by requiring the facility to meet a certain threshold of local dedication.

The staff interpretation also relied on previous similar projects in San Martin that were approved, including a Buddhist prayer center on Church Avenue.

During his public comments, Akhter noted that the SVIC has already been meeting for prayers and religious services in San Martin for several years, at a member’s privately owned barn.

Committee member Bob Cerruti asked county staff a series of questions about the storm water and groundwater issues on the property, citing his own field research in preparation for Tuesday’s meeting, and discussions with longtime neighbors of the site who told him some of the county staff’s observations of the property are not accurate.

Those observations include the direction of runoff flow, which determines how the developer may design drainage control.

And Cerruti noted during heavily rainy years, these neighbors have seen groundwater “bubbling up” out of the ground from depths much shallower than those previous groundwater studies have identified.

A groundwater study conducted earlier this year by the consultant Geoconsultants found that the groundwater basin starts between 17 and 37 feet below the topsoil, depending on the elevation on the property, which slopes uphill from Monterey Road to the north and west.

Staff said the additional groundwater studies, which prompted their last-minute decision to recommend delaying approval, would likely be completed before the planning commission’s September meeting. Santa Clara County planning manager Kirk Gerard said those tests will examine the site of a proposed drainage field on the property, as well as that of a reserve leach field elsewhere on the same site to ensure the soil will accommodate expected water runoff and not contaminate the groundwater.

“With the great deal of input we have received, we want to make sure we can fully support the project,” and fully analyze the project’s possible effect on the groundwater basin, Gerard said.

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  • hollisterresident831 posted at 8:03 pm on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    hollisterresident831 Posts: 34

    Wow William Yancey, that's really racist. You have been reported to the Santa Clara County Sheriffs Office, they thanked me for reporting you. You will probably now be being watched for your racist comment (;

  • fredoliveri posted at 11:37 am on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    fredoliveri Posts: 285

    Wow yancey, now going after a person with a hispanic name. Mine could be pasta eater and I am of Italian heritage. Going to post a racist remark on that as well. Good for you tacostuffer, I like your name. yancey's name should reflect his mental condition. Let's get a contest going to rename yancey. He has had many in the past, time for new one.

  • tacostuffer posted at 10:34 am on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    tacostuffer Posts: 4

    What am I going to do about it ? I will ask questions until I find out the truth. And, I am a citizen of a free democracy with laws and I am going to do what law abiding citizens of such a country do.

    I am sorry if you don't like Mexicans and my screen name offends you. There should be no banishment for having a screen name that reflects my cultural heritage and food likes.

  • WilliamYancey posted at 12:06 pm on Mon, Aug 6, 2012.

    WilliamYancey Posts: 390

    So what are you going to do about it, tacostuffer? (Not sure how you haven't been banned for that screen name alone.)

  • Farmerette posted at 10:50 am on Mon, Aug 6, 2012.

    Farmerette Posts: 31

    "groundwater basin starts between 17 and 37 feet below the topsoil", pretty darn shallow when you consider all the earthquakes we get...and a cemetery is planned there..? what is the jurisdiction for the depth or a coffin to be buried, I believe it must be covered with at least 18 in topsoil.

  • tacostuffer posted at 8:49 pm on Fri, Aug 3, 2012.

    tacostuffer Posts: 4

    Regarding "Anti-Muslim Sentiment" .... It seems every year, there are demands for apology from America to the Japanese over how the generation before us ended WWII. I can't say I have seen any apologies from the Islamic world for 9/11, or even public condemnation of the attacks from Islamic leaders. But there was plenty of celebrating and dancing in the streets of Islamic capitals (first hand accounts, not Fox news). We see images on the news frequently of American flags being burned by women in burqas. And it goes on. Why is it a surprise that San Martin residents express their negative sentiments when they see the a group moving in that shares the ideology of the people who attacked America on 9/11 ? Why are legitimate concerns being written off by the county and a different set of standards being applied with respect to the technical issues that have been raised ? The group moving in may well be misunderstood, and I hope that's the case. But it seems to be responding with anger and demands - consistent with the brand of Islam we see on the 6 o'clock news (again, not Fox). Given the practice of Al-taqiyya, how do we know we can trust this group ? I know what the Noble Qu'ran says about infidels, and non-believers and how some elements have taken those words to their logical conclusion. If the group Mr. Ahkter represents really is truly peaceful and not aligned with radical Islam, perhaps he should try a different approach. Acknowledge that he is dealing with a neighborhood that is justifiably "terrified", and reach out. Are you here to conquer and subdue or are you here as a contributing and strengthening fabric of an increasingly diverse community ?

  • MH Mama posted at 1:17 pm on Fri, Aug 3, 2012.

    MH Mama Posts: 1

    did people shout when the jewish community center was built in palo alto? did the people of MH worry when shadow mountain baptist moved into a building on monterey rd? was there an uproar when west hills church established a site on de witt ave? be careful people of south valley, your bigotry is showing!

  • Calle posted at 2:56 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Calle Posts: 64

    Oddly there are a number of Chistian groups in the same area that no one complains about.

  • School Mom posted at 2:45 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    School Mom Posts: 56

    "Shame on you South Valley"

    Isn't a blanket statement like that the same tactic a bigot would use?

    Everyone's a bigot, pick your side.

  • peaceseeker posted at 12:57 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    peaceseeker Posts: 2

    The members of this Mosque I know personally and they are active, productive, very generous members of our South Valley community. They are teachers, Doctors, business owners, parents and students. They volunteer for the 4th of July activities and clean up the parks the very next day. They co-ordinate with Christian and Jewish members of our community in soup kitchens. They participate in civic activities of all sorts and have given so much back to the community for many years with all their volunteerism. If the haters would only get to know them by coming to the many open houses they have provided to the public in the past several years, they will see for themselves what a peaceful and respectful group of people they are. Instead of digging up hate filled lies from shady websites to fuel the fans of their pre-conceived prejudices they would do well to take the time to personally get to know their Muslim neighbors.

  • WilliamYancey posted at 12:35 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    WilliamYancey Posts: 390

    Hahaha, oh wow. The Patriots boo and groan and shout down people who talk about civil rights and religious freedom. Let me repeat that.

    A group calling themselves "Patriots" boo the concepts of civil rights and religious liberty.

    One more time for good measure.

    A group calling themselves "Patriots" boo the concepts of civil rights and religious liberty.

    I am going to savor the irony until the day I die.

  • mhperson posted at 10:51 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    mhperson Posts: 1

    Shame on you South Valley!

    This is really about a group's Right to Property. Any individual or group has a right provided they meet the requirements and codes dictated by law.

    This debate has however been taken over by a narrow-minded (and sometimes misinformed) group of individuals. They demonize a whole minority group without ever getting to know them. They fear what they don’t understand.

    I have lived and worked here for decades and I am shocked to learn about the levels of ignorance and racism in South Valley.

    Santa Clara County is one of the most diverse communities in California. My co-workers come from all parts of the world and I have learnt a lot about their different histories and customs. Hindu, Jewish, Athiest, Muslim, whatever…let them live in peace.

    South Valley should not be known as the place in the Bay Area where intolerance and prejudice behavior against minorities is accepted.

    Peace out!

  • hypocrisyhater posted at 9:36 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    hypocrisyhater Posts: 234

    Do they support same secks marriage?

    If not, we should be giving them the Chick-fil-A treatment.


  • freedom1967 posted at 4:18 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    freedom1967 Posts: 1

    I don't believe they should build the in San Martin because it is not going to benefit or help the community. Most of the residents are hispanic and how will this non-profit organization help them. When I tried to open a non-profit organization they would not let me unless it would benefit the community. We had to organize food closets, educational resources and help the neighborhoods in our area. A mosque is a non-profit just like a churchor any non-profit they do not pay taxes. Its not about being a bigot how is this going to benefit the city of San Martin. 99% of the city in San Martin will not use it and are not allowed to be buried in a cemetary they are putting there. I hope they put it somewhere that is going to benefit their community where more people can use the mosque. We really need to stop the hate on both sides a non-profit organization has rules they have to follow and we they must help the community they are in.

  • garlicpony posted at 5:35 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    garlicpony Posts: 1

    I can't believe that 73% of the residents of south county voted (in Morgan Hill Times) against a Mosque being built in San Martin. Wow. More prejudice people live here than I thought, but I shouldn't be surprised. I thought our country was founded on "Freedom of Religion." Maybe we should put another stinky mushroom grower there. I find my life enriched from those of other cultures and ethnicities.

  • fredoliveri posted at 4:58 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    fredoliveri Posts: 285

    Poll in this weeks MH Times has a vote on this. Seems the readers indicate a 80% against this. Much be a bunch of bigots out there. Or they just do not want it there.

  • gilroygal posted at 4:36 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    gilroygal Posts: 2

    You are right, it shouldn't. Anyone who visits the proposed site location should be mindful of rowdy community residents spewing incorrect information and discriminatory comments. Nobody should be subject to such hateful things. I thought us country folk had better manners than that. If it's not about their religion, then why does the reporter feel the need to report it? The reporter even confirmed from the county that the project has "no significant impact on any of the areas of concern cited by the public, including groundwater worries even though the staff concluded that a more updated study on that question is needed." I never knew residents of Morgan Hill/San Martin/Gilroy to be such staunch environmental activists. What a JOKE! So who are they angry at? The County? The Muslims? Are they possibly angry at the Muslims because the County approved this...dare I say it, LEGAL and FULLY COMPLIANT request to build a religious center? Jeez people, get with the times. Move on and let this thing happen. There are more important issues facing this nation than a few families trying to build a mosque.

  • Gettin goog posted at 3:57 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    Gettin goog Posts: 50

    This should not go into San Martin- nothing but problems if it does ..