Jay Stapleton, The Connecticut Law Tribune, September 5, 2014
Lawyers representing an Islamic group that wants to build a mosque in Norwalk had run up an estimated $5.5 million legal tab. That number was making attorneys representing the city a bit nervous.
And so the two sides have agreed to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the Al Madany Islamic Center, which went to court after Norwalk zoning officials rejected a proposal for a 42,000-square-foot mosque and Islamic community center in a Norwalk residential neighborhood. Under the agreement, the city will allow a smaller mosque and the Islamic group will drop its lawsuit—and collect much less in legal fees.
The lawsuit was filed under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which gives religious groups seeking to build houses of worship added clout in bringing appeals in zoning cases. Under RLUIPA, municipalities that lose in court can be forced to pay the plaintiffs' legal costs.
Joseph Williams, who is representing the city, said in published interviews that city officials were well aware that if the case went to trial, they could face exposure north of $10 million. "If they won, they would have sought that and they would have been awarded something. Whether you get all of it, that's in the discretion of the judge, but they were running them up [legal costs] pretty fast," said Williams, of Shipman & Goodwin, in published interviews.
The Al Madany Islamic Center brought its lawsuit in 2012 after neighbors who expressed concerns about noise and traffic urged the zoning commission to reject the proposed mosque and Islamic center. Under the settlement agreement, the original plan for the mosque and accessory building on Fillow Street is to be reduced by nearly half, to 21,800 square feet. Meanwhile, the design will expand the number of on-site parking spaces by 50 percent, to 135, and additional trees will be planted around the site as noise and visual buffers.
At the same time, Al Madany will receive $307,500 to cover legal costs—$145,000 of that from Norwalk and the remaining $162,500 from the city's insurance carrier. Two out-of-state law firms that have represented the center for the past two years had, to this point, waived most of their legal costs. But it would have been a different story if the case went to trial.
The city zoning commission approved the settlement proposal on Sept. 4. The Common Council was scheduled to take it up on Sept. 8.
This is the second proposed settlement in the case. A previous deal, which would have allowed the mosque to retain its originally proposed size and included a $100,000 payment to Al Madany, was ultimately rejected by former Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia. In a subsequent meeting, the zoning commission voted 6-1 to approve a settlement "if an acceptable agreement could be reached."
One important step in resolving the dispute came in August, when the Stonegate Condominium Association, which had opposed the mosque's plans, issued a letter of support for the current settlement agreement.
The settlement plan calls for the city to install "traffic calming measures" as needed near the mosque. Al Madany has agreed to submit notice with the city five days before any events that may attract more than 350 people, and will arrange for shuttle buses to transport visitors to off-site parking areas during those events.
"From a legal perspective, this settlement demonstrates how the federal statute RLUIPA is a positive tool in being able to balance the interests of the religious organization with the interests of the municipality and the neighbors," said Roman Storzer, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who is nationally known for his work representing religious organizations in RLUIPA cases. Storzer was hired early in the case to represent the mosque, along with Peter Vigeland and Christopher Bouchoux, of Wilmer Hale.
Storzer said the settlement is an important one for Al Madany as well, because it resulted in the protection of the mosque's constitutional rights.
His co-counsel, Bouchoux, agreed. "I think it is a good settlement from Al Madany's perspective," said Bouchoux in an earlier interview. "The most important goal for our client was that they see their rights vindicated and that they be able to construct and use, consistent with their faith, a mosque at the property that they own. This settlement will achieve that goal."