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Norwalk ponders a settlement over mosque dispute

A dispute over a mosque proposal in Norwalk, Conn., is now pending in federal court. City officials are considering a settlement agreement to end a legal battle with the Al Madany Islamic Center. But while the attorneys have worked out an agreement, it's not popular with the mosque's would-be neighbors or the general public. 

Farhan Memon is a spokesperson for the Al Madany Islamic Center. It's made up of about 100 families in Norwalk, who currently pray in basements. He said they're not asking for special treatment. 

"The proposals that we made in both the original application as well as the settlement, comply with all of the zoning regulations as they are on the books today," Memon said, at a public hearing before the Common Council recently. 

At issue is whether the city should settle a federal lawsuit brought by Al Madany. Two years ago, the city's Zoning Commission rejected the Muslim group's application for a 27,000 square foot mosque and hall on 1.5 acres at 127 Fillow Street in West Norwalk. Al Madany appealed in federal court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. That law prohibits local land use regulations from discriminating against any institution on the basis of religion. Al Madany's lead attorney in the case, Peter Vigeland, explained the complaint at the hearing.

"The key element of this claim is whether the denial of the permit substantially burdens the exercise of their faith. Right now, there's no mosque in Norwalk for the Muslim citizens to go and pray," he said.

Despite the city's zoning decision, it's under pressure to settle. If the case goes to trial and Al Madany prevails, the city could be on the hook for millions in legal fees. Earlier this month, the attorneys reached a settlement agreement. Al Madany would cut the size to 21,000 square feet and make parking arrangements. In exchange, the city would grant a special permit to build a mosque in a Triple A residential neighborhood. The city would also pay Al Madany $300,000 in damages. And a neighboring condo association, Stonegate, would also receive $53,000 to help defray the cost of putting up a dividing gate to keep overflow traffic from the mosque off its property. Stonegate legally intervened in the negotiations at their own expense. Israel Herskowitz is on Stonegate's board. He urged leaders to approve the settlement. 

"The other issue besides RLUIPA hurdle is the fact that the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department Civil Rights division wants a settlement or they're going to intervene in the case. This doesn't spell success for the city. So we came down to the issue...something's going to be built...what could we live with?"

And there's the issue of race. Neighbors and city officials who oppose the mosque's plans say the Al Madany community hasn't been treated any differently than anyone else. Yet the situation is similar to other instances in Connecticut where neighbors have objected to proposed mosques by citing zoning and traffic issues. Mosque supporters alleged racism. That's how Norwalk resident Aisha Rabiu sees this case.

"You all see me, I'm black, I'm a woman, I'm a Muslim," Rabiu said at the podium. "I know discrimination when I see one. And this is really not fair. It is not fair for the Muslim community to be treated like this."

Common Council member David McCarthy rejects the idea that the dispute is rooted in discrimination. He is also opposed to the settlement agreement dated Sept. 9, 2014. He said it would set a bad precedent for Norwalk. In the meantime, the Common Council has been holding closed-door sessions looking at solutions. 

"I can't go into specifics," McCarthy said, reached by telephone. "But if one of those reasonable proposals is able to be agreed upon we could save ourselves from the lose-lose scenario that the attorneys have put us in." 

One solution would be to find Al Madany another location. Al Madany has expressed a willingness to relocate, but only after a settlement with the city. After being tabled for weeks, city leaders are expected to take action on the agreement Tuesday evening in the concert hall at City Hall. 

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