A proposal for a Muslim mosque and community center in San Martin is once again stirring politically and culturally motivated resistance from some residents. While many heartfelt concerns over the size of the project known as the Cordoba Center and its environmental impact to the surrounding rural neighborhood were expressed at a Feb. 25 community meeting, other residents expressed fear of the South Valley Islamic Community’s religion.
The”early outreach” meeting inside the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center grew heated when some speakers objected to the religion of Islam, which some equated to a destructive ideology. One speaker even suggested the project proposed near the intersection of Monterey Road and California Avenue might invite terrorism to San Martin.
Shouts and jeers erupted from the audience when commenters voiced these views, and when others countered them with pleas for love and tolerance. Those who agreed with a speaker applauded loudly after their comments.
Santa Clara County Principal Planner Rob Eastwood noted that while residents are free to state their opinions, by state and federal law the county cannot consider the religious aspect of the proposal in its review, which is limited only to environmental impacts and compliance with the General Plan and other land use policies. A forthcoming Environmental Impact Report and study is the next big phase in the project review before the Cordoba Center can become a reality; the EIR will not be completed for at least another “nine to 18 months.”
But many other South County residents at the meeting had concerns and questions more in line with what the upcoming EIR will address at the 16-acre property. Those worries include traffic, aesthetics and the project’s effect on groundwater—based on a cemetery proposed on the site—and stormwater runoff.
Some were worried about the size of the project within the small unincorporated town. Dozens of San Martin residents in attendance displayed signs reading “SIZE MATTERS” in large type.
“I’m concerned about the impact on water, and the impact on the peacefulness of our community,” San Martin resident Karen Harley said during public comments.
About 200 people attended the meeting, and more than 20 spoke during the public comment portion.
The Cordoba Center is proposed by the SVIC, which consists of about 100 Muslim families in South County. The project includes an 8,938 square foot mosque, a 14,548 square foot community building, a maintenance structure and caretaker’s dwelling, according to Project Manager and Land Use Planner Kim Tschantz of Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning.
Proposed outdoor facilities include a cemetery, playfield/playground and a campground for youth summer camps, Tschantz added. The developer will plant a small orchard on the Monterey Road frontage, between the structures and the roadway, and add vegetation to the property’s southern border in order to help the project blend in with its natural surroundings.
The expected maximum occupancy of the site will be 300 people, who will attend afternoon religious services once a week, on Fridays, Tschantz said. Up to four times per year, occupancy could exceed 300 people for the Eid holiday and weekend community events.
The facility would be open daily for prayer and other events, “just like a Catholic or Protestant church,” but these occasions would not draw large crowds, Tschantz added.
The campground would consist of 14 wooden platforms for tents that could accommodate an annual weeklong summer camp at the Cordoba Center, Tschantz said.
The project planners also talked about the wastewater and stormwater runoff infrastructure. The wastewater system would be “quite advanced” as it removes nitrates from any waste that leaches into the onsite septic system. This system design includes a denitrification chamber, a drip irrigation leach field and a 35-foot separation between the bottom of the leachfield and the top of the groundwater; state regulations require a minimum of a five foot separation, Tschantz said.
Stormwater would run off into a “groundwater swale” at the southern edge of the property. Thus the project would not increase the current rate of drainage off the property, Tschantz explained.
Mary Anne Groen, who lives in the neighborhood of the Cordoba Center proposal, said she is worried about traffic entering the site on its busier days, and suggested a deceleration lane for motorists turning into the facility from Monterey Road.
Harley and other speakers also worried about the combined impact of the Cordoba Center and a 124-space RV park proposed next door to the religious institution on the corner of Monterey Road and California.
The project, which was submitted late 2015, is significantly larger than the 2012 Cordoba Center, which was also proposed by the SVIC at the same site. That project called for a 5,000-square-foot prayer hall, 2,800-square-foot multi-purpose hall, a two-acre cemetery and a children’s play area. The Board of Supervisors approved that project in September 2012, but the SVIC withdrew their plans when a group calling itself the People’s Coalition for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit.
Eastwood noted the current proposal is only in its initial application review period. After the EIR is complete and subject to further public review, the county planning commission will consider granting a use permit, and the Board of Supervisors will consider the cemetery permit.
Before the EIR is complete and adopted, the public will have plenty of chances—and is encouraged—to provide further input, Eastwood explained.
Some commenters at the Feb. 25 meeting sought to dispel their neighbors’ fears of Islam, and allow county planning staff and consultants to take their time to assess the project’s measurable effect on the surrounding area and compliance with state and local environmental codes. Some of these speakers included pastors and religious leaders of other, non-Muslim congregations in South County.
“These comments are based on fear and ignorance and xenophobia,” said Rabbi Debbie Israel of Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill, as she noted that freedom of religion is a fundamental American principle. “This is an opportunity to create the kind of harmonious community we are proud of.”