By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
The Muslim Center of Somerset County will give up its request to hold a preschool in order to eliminate a potential roadblock to receiving approval to move into an approved site for a Jewish center on New Amwell Road.
The Muslim Center wants to assume the 2013 approval granted the Chabad Center for Jewish Life to convert a multi-family dwelling into a house of worship at 26 New Amwell Road. The single-family home in front at 22 New Amwell Road that was to be a residence for the rabbi would instead become a home for an imam and two resident interns.
The Muslim Center presented two witnesses to the Board of Adjustment on Wednesday, Jan. 20. An emerging disagreement over the number of people to be allowed in the “back” building was defused when, following a break in proceedings, attorney Loyd Tubman said her client would forego a preschool in order to hold down the number of people and autos on the site at any one time.
Board members questioned Muslim Center representatives that the estimated 35 to 42 children attending the school, when added to worshippers arriving for any of the five daily prayer sessions, would exceed the numbers that the board had approved for the Chabad.
Ms. Tubman tried to argue that the approval resolution for the Chabad said only that the number of worshippers was to be capped at 49.
The hearing was continued to March 2, when a traffic engineer and a planner are expected to testify.
Amjad Ghori, treasurer for the Muslim Center, testified that anywhere from 4 to 15 worshippers could be expected to attend the five prayer sessions per day at the center. On Friday, weekly prayer in the early afternoon could be projected to have 40 to 48 attendees, he said.
That was near the upper limit of 49 people the board had imposed on the Chabad. With the preschool, that could put the center well above the board’s expectation, members said.
Occupancy questions might also be governed by fire safety laws, said board attorney Mark Anderson.
“The question is not what you want to do, but the little house you’re doing it in,” said Steven Sireci Jr., the board chairman, right before the recess.
Ms. Tubman said her client would agree to have no more than 49 persons of the site at any one time, but would want to use the facility in any church-related way it wished.
During Ramadan, the holiest period of the year for Muslims, nightly prayer of about 75 minutes might attract 30 to 48 people, Mr. Ghori said. That session cannot be split into two services, and would have to be held offsite if it appeared the occupancy limit might be breached.
Ramadan observances are held nightly for 30 days, when expanded services of 75 minutes would be held twice a day. In 2016, Ramadan falls from June 6 to July 5, but it shifts by weeks annually.
Neighbors from nearby Cumberland Drive asked about lighting and fencing, but Ms. Tubman said she did not want to reopen any of the approved site plan details.
The board did make some accommodation on lighting because of the potential of some services to start earlier and end later than the Chabad had planned. The board seemed to agree to allow outside lights to remain on from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the latest.
The Chabad received approvals for a total of 28 parking spaces, which included two garage spaces.
With the exception of the internal changes to the worship center, other site plan elements as approved by the zoning board would remain the same.
The two lots combine for 2.297 acres and have a single driveway on east side of the property. Conditions of approval said the driveway had to be widened 10 feet to a total of 20 feet. The two lots were to be consolidated into one, the parking area expanded and a dropoff and turnaround for emergency vehicles created.
Midday Friday is the peak weekly prayer day. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day (dawn, true noon, afternoon, sunset, dusk).
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor