MERIDEN — A Middletown mosque is considering an appeal after the Planning Commission denied the group’s bid to open a place of worship on Research Parkway.
”We haven’t yet received a written decision for the basis of why they denied our request,” said attorney Refai Erfin, who represents the Omar Islamic Center. “We’re reserving all rights, including the right to appeal.”
The city’s Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to reject the Omar Islamic Center’s special permit application to allow a place of worship in an M-4 zone at 999 Research Parkway.
In voting against the plan, commission members said the primary purpose of M-4 zoned lots is industrial, office and commercial uses and the "proposed use does not meet the special exception criteria because it is not congruent with the surrounding land uses and it does not augment the primary use of land."
Commission Chairman Enrico Buccilli said the panel also determined the application wasn't in line with the city Plan of Conservation and Development's call for the promotion of commercial and industrial development.
"We didn't think it was appropriate for that particular area, and it also goes contrary to the POCD, which calls for an increase in commercial and industrial development," Buccilli said.
Mosque President Ahmed Badir called the decision disappointing. The Omar Islamic Center, which currently meets in Middletown, has outgrown its current space. The Research Parkway property, meanwhile, has been vacant for 17 years and is currently a target for vandalism and trash dumping, he said.
The owner is donating the building to the mosque rather than see it deteriorate.
Badir helped found the Sunni mosque currently on East Main Street, restoring a vacant, run-down building into a neighborhood improvement. He intends to do the same thing with the Research Parkway property, he said.
While the mosque would qualify for a property tax exemption, the Omar Islamic Center intends to rent offices to professional members of the group and, as a result, put some of the space back on the tax rolls.
Commission members asked Badir if he considered other properties that could be used for the mosque. The group cannot afford to purchase a building now, he said.
Badir and Erfin were prepared to go before the City Council and present a letter from the property owner, but were never given the opportunity, Badir said.
M. Farooque Mesiya, the building’s current owner, documented in a Feb. 19 letter to the City Council and Planning Commission his struggle trying to find a tenant for the site despite help from city staff and commercial real estate agents. Mesiya founded American Lightwave Systems Inc. in 1986 and later moved the company to 999 Research Parkway.
“Several attempts to sell the building to non-profit organizations were blocked by the city administration,” Mesiya wrote. “The last attempt was to lease the building to a school in Wallingford which was also denied, although the clients came through the Meriden Economic Development organization.”
Mesiya disputes the commission’s argument that Research Parkway should be reserved only for industrial and commercial enterprises, saying the business model for buildings like his has been “obsolete for over a decade” and that businesses haven’t been showing interest in Connecticut.
“Let us use the building for a good civic and useful purpose rather than be ravaged by remaining unoccupied for decades to come,” he wrote in the letter. He estimated he has spent $1.5 million combined on local taxes, maintenance, and repairs for destruction and theft on the property
The Planning Commission was also asked to consider the "equal terms" provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.
City Director of Planning Renata Bertotti didn’t make a recommendation but did instruct commission members on applicable laws.
"The staff believes that since there are secular uses allowed ... in this zoning district, approving this application would be consistent with the ‘equal terms’ provision of RLUIPA,” Bertotti told the commission in February.
Buccilli, along with regular members Laura Uhrig, Leonard Rich, and alternates Kevin Curry and David Cooley, voted against the application.
Curry and Cooley were seated for the vote because they had attended February’s public hearing. New alternates Steven Iovanna and Donald Cariati Jr., who were appointed in January, were ineligible to vote because they weren’t sworn in before the hearing.
Regular member Ross Gulino was not present for the vote, meaning Rich, who did not attend the public hearing, voted instead. Buccilli said he asked Rich to familiarize himself with the minutes of the public hearing prior to voting.
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