Law Tribune Staff and Wire Reports, The Connecticut Law Tribune
September 24, 2014
A long-running dispute between the city of Norwalk and an Islamic group appears to be settled, with the city agreeing to pay $2 million to the group and help it find an alternate location for a mosque and a meeting hall.
The case was one of several pending in Connecticut that involved the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives religious organizations an array of legal rights in zoning disputes. The Al Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk sued after the Zoning Commission rejected plans for a 27,000-square-foot building. Neighbors had said it was too large a project for a residential neighborhood.
Over the years, the case proceeded slowly, marked heated debate involving city residents and officials and on-again, off-again settlement talks. Earlier this month, lawyers said a deal had been reached that would cover about $300,000 in the Islamic center's legal costs and allow a smaller than initially planned mosque to be built on the original site. Attorneys close to the case said the city felt it had no choice but to settle because municipalities that lose RLUIPA cases must pay the religious organizations' attorney fees. In this case, the plaintiff's fees had reached a reported $5.5 million.
Norwalk's zoning commission signed off on the settlement. Norwalk's Common Council delayed one vote on the plan. Then, one day before the council met on Tuesday, Sept. 23, a Norwalk attorney filed a lawsuit on behalf of six households that either abut the mosque property, or lie within 100 feet of it. Attorney Victor Cavallo told the Norwalk Hour newspaper that the city was threatened into negotiating a settlement agreement with Al Madany and that the zoning commission approval was contrary to state law and local regulations.
As a result, the council on Tuesday altered the settlement to include a $2 million payment to the Islamic group and a promise that the city would help find a different location for the mosque. Council President Douglas Hempstead said council members balanced their fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers and guarantees of freedom of religion.