Al Madany Islamic Center and the Norwalk Zoning Commission have agreed to the terms of a proposed settlement stemming from the Commission’s 2012 denial of the Islamic Center’s proposal to construct a 27,000 square-foot mosque and multi-purpose hall on 1.5 acres in a residential neighborhood. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case after the City challenged the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and reportedly encouraged the parties to settle. Before the terms of the settlement can be formally entered by the Court, state law requires that a public hearing be held by the Commission. The public hearing is scheduled for September 4, 2014. A summary of the proposed settlement agreement is found here.
The Commission will grant a special permit to the Islamic Center to use the property as a “house of worship” subject to certain conditions and limitations. The Islamic Center has agreed to reduce the useable space in the recreational building, reduce the overall size of the building, and increase the amount of on-site parking provided. It will do so in part by replacing the first floor usable space in the accessory or recreational building with a parking deck, reducing the amount of space to be used and increasing the amount of onsite parking. There will also be a reduction in the cubic volume of the facility by approximately 11 percent. The Islamic Center will increase the size and amount of plantings on the property, and will pay for undefined “traffic calming measures” at the site. There will be no amplified or unamplified calls to prayer from the proposed mosque’s minaret, and no amplified calls to prayer outdoors on the property. The proposed settlement would also require that the Islamic Center hold two prayer services on the Islamic High Holy Days to minimize the potential need for off-site parking, and hire police or other appropriate officers to direct traffic.
The City and its insurance carrier will pay the Islamic Center more than $307,000 as part of the settlement, to be approved by the City Council. If the City instead pursued this matter to trial and lost, it would be subject to attorneys’ fees, which, in this case, its lawyers estimate could potentially reach several millions of dollars.
The City is represented by Marci Hamilton, the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, one of the foremost experts on RLUIPA. Hamilton, in a statement with the online newspaper Nancy On Norwalk, has praised the settlement as an appropriate compromise between the City, the Islamic Center, and neighbors:
This is the best settlement that I have seen a city negotiate for its citizens of any of the settlements I have seen. One of the reasons I say that is the city from the beginning has refused to be cowed by the RLUIPA club. That meant that they basically insisted on their neutral land use principals to guide this. . . .
This is how land use was operating before RLUIPA, it’s how it should be operating and I give Norwalk a tremendous amount of credit for just sticking to principal, and for the mosque to also be willing to just say, “OK, we really want to be able to build our mosque. We don’t really want to be in litigation for years and years.” So I was really glad to see the rational heads prevail, but, to be honest, I’ve been impressed with Norwalk from the beginning because the city had an interest in challenging constitutionality.
Even with a good result like this, this case should never have been filed, in my view. I think RLUIPA is a very bad law. I think it’s unconstitutional, it’s unfair to local governments. But once the lower court rightly said “I can’t hold it unconstitutional, it’s going to have to go up to the Second Circuit,” then the city had to decide. Is it going to continue to litigate or is it going to try to figure out the answer? I encouraged it to settle, not because I thought the facts were against the city, but because I always think it’s better to figure that out if you can. So they done good.