MERIDEN — A City Council resolution would authorize the city to pay up to $45,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed last year by a Middletown mosque whose application to relocate to a Meriden building was denied by the Planning Commission.
The resolution also “strongly” recommends the Planning Commission reverse its March 2019 decision and “follow the zoning regulations and issue an immediate approval.”
The resolution, published Wednesday afternoon, is scheduled to be taken up at a special council meeting today.
The lawsuit filed by Omar Islamic Center claimed the Planning Commission violated the mosque’s First Amendment rights and “deprived the center of its right to the free exercise of religion ... by imposing and implementing land use regulations in a manner that places a substantial burden on the center's religious exercise without using the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest."
The city’s Law Department referred an inquiry on the suit this week to City Manager Tim Coon, who declined to comment because the lawsuit is still pending.
The mosque, Omar Islamic Center, applied in March 2019 to relocate from Main Street in Middletown to a much larger building at 999 Research Parkway. The two-story building, constructed in 1991, is located on the west side of Research Parkway and has been vacant for many years. The applicant wanted to use the first floor for religious purposes and the second floor for office space, which wouldn’t have had a religious tax exemption.
Religion is not an accepted use in the M-4 Planned Industrial District zone where the property is located, as the zone is primarily used for manufacturing and production. Property owners, however, can obtain a special exception for certain uses, like a school or house of worship.
In voting 5-0 to deny the mosque’s application, the commission cited three reasons: the M-4 manufacturing zone where the property is located is primarily meant for industrial, office and commercial uses; the application was not in line with the city's Plan of Conservation and Development because it "reduces commercial and industrial spaces;" and the application didn't meet the criteria for a special exception because it was "not congruent with the surrounding land uses and it does not augment the primary use of land."
"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," Planning Commission chair Enrico Buccilli told the Record-Journal last year.
Buccilli, who couldn’t be reached Wednesday, voted to deny the application along with Lenny Rich, Kevin Curry, Dave Cooley, and Laura Uhrig, according to meeting minutes.
The lawsuit argued the commission “created a reason for denial that no place of worship could surmount,” adding that "the stated reasons (for the denial) are therefore in bad faith and evidence of the discriminatory intent of the commission ..."
Refai Arefin, the attorney representing the Omar Islamic Center, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The lawsuit further argued the mosque "satisfied all applicable criteria" and that the denial was based on "misappropriation of state and local laws, ad hoc factors specifically and specially designed to prevent the establishment of a mosque within Meriden," and "unequal treatment as compared to similarly situated places of worship ..."
Online court records show the two sides have held settlement conferences in recent months. The city attorney and other top officials met with the City Council in an executive session Monday to discuss the case.