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Planning Commission asks for scaled-down San Martin mosque, community center project

SAN JOSE — It may be back to the drawing board for a proposed mosque, community center and Islamic cemetery in San Martin, after the Santa Clara County Planning Commission asked for a smaller version of the project.
The nearly 30,000 square-foot Cordoba Center project has been a lightning rod in rural San Martin for concerns about urbanized developments, well water quality and, from a small but vocal group, opposition to the center’s Islamic faith.
At a meeting Thursday evening, a majority of commissioners said they supported the project, but couldn’t back a project of that size for a rural, unincorporated community.
“This is a precedent. If this is approved at this size, we’ll have major issues,” said Commissioner Vicki Moore. “I think we are knowing going forward with the size of a project that is inconsistent with the general plan.”
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 have about 2,000 graves.
The facility would have a capacity of 300 people at regular events and host four special events a year with 500 people. The center would also hold summer camps for children.
A different version of the project, about a third the size of the current one, received unanimous approval from the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors in 2012. But a community group sued the county demanding an full environmental review, and the applicant withdrew their application, returning in 2016 with the current proposal.
Commissioner Aimee Escobar, one of three commissioners who voted in favor of passing the project as-is, said the size of the project makes sense for a church and said any new projects in the area will go through the same planning process to determine whether they are consistent with planning documents.
“Any church or place of gathering is going to be at least 300 people,” Escobar said. “I don’t feel it sets a dangerous precedence for anything.”
Commissioners did not deny the project application, instead choosing to continue the item to a meeting in August and asking county staff to come back with an analysis for a project of reduced size. They also approved the project’s environmental impact report.
The South Valley Islamic Center, the organization behind the project, said in a statement after the meeting that they’re pleased the commission approved their environmental report and believe any remaining issues with the project will be resolved by commission’s August meeting.
“We’re confident that we will be able to resolve the remaining issue at that time,” according to the statement.
At the public hearing, where there was standing room only, members of the South Valley Islamic Center  said they’ve already waited too long for the project.
“SVIC does not have a place to worship — a room on a member’s private property does not accommodate most of our members,” said Karen Musa, the group’s president. “Even at the largest room of the [Morgan Hill] community center, we are now at maximum capacity.”
The South Valley Islamic Center is composed up about 100 Muslim American families, and has been gathering in a 1,000-square foot sheep barn in San Martin for the past 18 years. They purchased the project site in 2006 and have been planning it since then.
Opponents of the Cordoba Center, which according to county staff would be the largest institutional project for San Martin in at least 15 years, have raised concerns about the size of the project and accompanying impacts like traffic, noise and flooding from the paving of surfaces.
Concerns about the project’s size were also echoed by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which in a May 22 letter stated that the proposal is “urban in scale and cannot be fully supported by onsite services” such as a well and likely require private water service.
A lawyer for the project said the Cordoba Center would not be the only large religious institution in the area, pointing to a Hindu temple three miles down the road from the Cordoba Center site. According to county staff, the Hindu temple is 15,000 square feet.
The cemetery  — where, according to Islamic tradition, bodies would not be preserved with embalming chemicals and would be buried directly in the ground — has also stoked concerns about contamination of groundwater from human remains.
Sewage spills and a toxic perchlorate spill in 2003, which tainted hundreds of wells, have heightened concerns about well water quality in San Martin.
Ben Seward, a San Martin resident since 1974, said he had to install a filter and osmosis machine to drink his well water.
“How many people drink tap water out of your tap and make coffee with tap water? I don’t, because I haven’t been able to do it for 18 years,” said Seward.
Commissioners asked several questions about the groundwater studies conducted by a county consultant, which determined that limiting burials to 30 a year would mitigate any impacts on drinking water quality.
They ultimately didn’t have concerns about the cemetery proposal.
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