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Mosque/cemetery proposal stirs controversy in San Martin

SAN MARTIN — For almost two decades, a growing community of nearly 100 Muslim American families from southern Santa Clara County have been gathering for prayer inside a small sheep barn in San Martin and sending their children there for Sunday school.
Their “barn mosque,” as they call it, is a tad larger than 1,000 square feet, furnished with a carpet and equipped with a small air conditioning unit. It’s too small to accommodate everyone at once, so families take turns having monthly potlucks and other activities inside.
The barn’s owner, a Vietnam War veteran who heard they needed a place to worship, kicked out the sheep and offered them use of the building in 2001, rent-free.
“We’re overstaying our welcome. It’s like 18 years ago someone invited us over for dinner and we still haven’t left,” said Noshaba Afzal, one of the family members who make up the South Valley Islamic Center and convene at the barn.
Now the Islamic Center may get a more permanent gathering spot if the Santa Clara County Planning Commission on Thursday considers supporting their plan to build a 30,000-square-foot complex and a 2,000-grave cemetery on a vacant grass field in San Martin. The facility, to be called the Cordoba Center, would include a mosque and community center.
But the project has drawn fire from some residents who say it’s too big for unincorporated San Martin and and are concerned that human remains would contaminate local groundwater.
Opposition has also arisen from a small but vocal group of people who have a problem with the Muslim faith and question the American loyalties of those who would attend the mosque. Afzal said one man asked her at a public meeting if she belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and cited social media posts asking whether those attending the mosque would be violent extremists or practice Sharia law.
In 2012, a group called the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots invited Peter Friedman, who runs an anti-Muslim website that’s been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to the Gilroy Library to espouse his views. Although members of the group criticized the project’s size and environmental impacts, as did other residents, some also spoke out against allowing a Muslim center at the site.
The past and recent criticism has caused South Valley Islamic Center members to wonder whether it’s genuinely based on the project’s size or fueled by Islamophobia.
Hina Moheyuddin, 25, who learned to read and write Arabic at the barn mosque, says she didn’t feel much discrimination in southern Santa Clara County until she began attending meetings for the project.
“You’re my neighbor, I’m your neighbor. My faith hasn’t changed. So what changed?” Moheyuddin said. “We just need a bigger place to worship.”
Trina Hineser, president of the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance, said the group objects to the size and intensity of the proposed project and the fact the applicants have refused to scale it down.
“It’s been my observation that they want what they want, and they want to make no alternate changes,” Hineser said in an phone interview. “When people put the religious card out there and say everybody is against them, it’s absolutely not true.”
Noting she wears a hijab, Afzal said she has not felt discriminated against because of it since moving to unincorporated Gilroy in 2011 and believes Islamophobic remarks have come from a minority of opponents. But she said the problem is people who don’t agree with the others aren’t standing up and condemning Islamaphobia.
“To say ‘I’m not a bigot’ is one thing, but denounce it, condemn it,” Afzal said.
SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: A view of a part of the proposed site for the Cordoba Center, a combination of a mosque, community center and cemetery in San Martin, on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: Noshaba Afzal, a resident of unincorporated Gilroy since 2011 and a member of the South Valley Islamic Center, shows this news organization the proposed site for the Cordoba Center, a combination of a mosque, community center and cemetery in San Martin, on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) Sound The gallery will resume in seconds SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: Goats roam around in a field next to a mosque which used to be a barn for animals, in San Martin on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: An interior view of a mosque, which used to be a barn, in San Martin on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: Goats are seen roaming around in a field next to a mosque which used to be a barn for animals, in San Martin on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: A fryer calling for support for the the Cordoba Center project is displayed at a mosque in San Martin on May 17, 2019. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) SAN MARTIN, CA - MAY 17: The members of the South Valley Islamic Center, Hina Moheyuddin, front center, Hamdy Abbass, behind Moheyuddin, and Noshaba Afzal pose for a portrait inside the "barn mosque" in San Martin on May 17, 2019. A barn was turned into the mosque in 2001. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) Show Caption of Expand
At its meeting Thursday, the county planning commission is to vote on the project’s use permit and whether to recommend that the Board of Supervisors approve a cemetery permit.
The project is located on a 15.8-acre site at 14045 Monterey Road and would include a 9,000-square-foot mosque, 14,500-square-foot community center, 15,000-square-foot community plaza and 3,380-square-foot caretaker’s building.
The cemetery would provide burials for South Valley Islamic Center members and their extended families, and allow outside burials on a case-by-case basis.
The facility would have a capacity of 300 people at regular events and host four special events a year with up to 500 people. The center would also hold summer camps for children.
The Cordoba Center is the largest institutional proposal for San Martin to come forward in at least 15 years, according to county planning manager Rob Eastwood.
The proposal is almost triple the size of the original project in 2012, which received unanimous planning commission and board of supervisors approval but was withdrawn after facing a lawsuit that demanded a full environmental review. Rather than fight the lawsuit, the applicants withdrew their permits.
This time, they opted to conduct a full environmental review.
“We’ve been trying to build this project for 13 years, each time consuming more time and money and each time we’ve been required to go above and beyond what others have been required,” said Sal Akter, a member of South Valley Islamic Center, at a public meeting on May 16.
Akter said the project is larger because they were advised by the county to build it based on future needs and potential population growth. He estimated they have spent nearly $3.2 million on purchasing the land and developing the plans since 2006.
“We’ve been here 20 years and always wanted to have our own place. Some of us mortgaged our retirements” to buy the property, said Hamdy Abbass, a board member for South Valley Islamic Center. “We almost gave up the project because of the debts we’ve accumulated.”
Opponents say the project would better suit an urban area and is too big for San Martin, which is unincorporated county land and has a population of about 7,000.
Julie Hutcheson, director of the Committee for Green Foothills, said the organization was comfortable with the smaller 2012 proposal, but believes approval of the current project would set a bad precedent.
“This would change the face, intended nature and character of the county’s rural areas,” Hutcheson said, alluding to the project’s size. “People really care about keeping rural areas rural.
Afzal said buildings occupy 4 percent of the property, while the rest of the land would remain open natural grasses. Graves would be marked with flat stones rather than headstones.
The project has also generated environmental concerns focused on potential flooding caused by paving over parts of the property and the impact of decomposing bodies on local groundwater wells.
Traditional Islamic burials do not use embalming chemicals or coffins; bodies are washed, wrapped in white cloth and placed directly in the ground.
The project’s environmental review has determined “less than significant’ impacts to groundwater and, according to county staff, limiting burials to 30 a year would mitigate effects on well water. The well on site will also be monitored four times a year.

Afzal said she understands the concerns about contaminated well water, noting most of the families attending the mosque rely on well water themselves and will be drinking well water on the  mosque site itself.
“I think once it’s built, people will see it’s a beautiful thing for our community,” Afzal said.
Contact Thy Vo at 408-200-1055 or tvo@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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