Residents concerned about size of project, impact on noise, environment and traffic
Published in the March 2-15, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
On the ridge of an oak-crowned hill overlooking San Martin, Hamdy Abbass pointed below to the flatland of the 16-acre property where the South Valley Islamic Community hopes to build its Cordoba Center for Muslims and the public. The serene beauty of lush green grass waving in an afternoon breeze belied the escalating contention the proposed project is creating in the South Valley community.
The local Islamic community has hired an architecture firm for the center which will design the facilities in California Missions-style to blend in with the rural landscape of Morgan Hill.
If constructed, the Cordoba Center will include a 7,000-square-foot, one-story mosque and a 10,000-square-foot, two-story community center. Other features of the site include two parking lots, a playground, a summer campground for youth, a caretaker’s home, and a 3.5-acre Muslim cemetery.
“It’s not going to takeaway from the rural atmosphere that we love and cherish about the area itself,” Abbass said. “We are conscious about what we put in that area. We are good neighbors and want to continue to be good neighbors.”
The spokesperson for the SVIC well knows the difficult road ahead and the uncertainty of whether the Cordoba Center will ever be built. He was involved in a previous attempt on the project several years ago. He faced with his fellow Muslims the debate — and often vocal outrage — of activists in San Martin, Morgan Hill and Gilroy who didn’t want the Islamic religious center in their South Valley community.
“It was in 2012 when we got a unanimous approval from both the Santa Clara County Planning Commission and from the board of supervisors,” Abbass said. “Shortly after that, a group opposed to the project sued the county to stop the project on environmental grounds. So we tried to negotiate with them. We were never asked to do (negotiations), but if we had been asked, we would have done it because we did everything else that was asked of us from the county. They wouldn’t answer back. It seemed like they weren’t just looking at it from that (environmental) point of view. They are people who do not want us to be there.”
Much of the same outrage of four years ago surfaced the evening of Thursday Feb. 26 at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center when more than 200 people heard a one-hour presentation about what was planned for the property from Kim Tschantz, project manager of the Aptos-based Cypress Environmental and Land Use Planning, and Santa Cruz-based architect Daniel Silvernail. The meeting was set up by the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development. The second hour was reserved for public comment. Nearly 30 speakers gave their strong-felt opinions on why they thought the Cordoba Center should or should not become a reality. About a dozen people occasionally held over their heads large cards reading “Size Matters in San Martin” to emphasize their concern about the center’s footprint.
Many speakers brought up their concerns about the Muslim cemetery which they feared might pollute the aquifer as bodies decomposed. San Martin residents faced the industrially-produced toxin perchlorate in their well water about a decade ago so many speakers brought this concern up.
Among them was Georgine Scott-Codiga who asked the SVIC members what basis they have for saying the cemetery is safe:
“I am not aware of one green cemetery in line with the Muslim burial in the United States of America,” she said. “I would like to know what standards you are using for this burial site, because I have contacted the Green Burial Council. They use the World Health Organization standards. And I don’t think after the perchlorate scare that San Martin had and people being on bottled water for years that people want to be guinea pigs for a new study and a cemetery that has not been anywhere in the United States of America and you have no valid study for this.”
The Cordoba Center faced the same question about the cemetery in its first attempt to build. The center will abide by all environmental requirements for cemetery safety, Abbass told Morgan Hill Life.
“There were a lot of people who were talking about how the cemetery will pollute the ground water and all that stuff, and we got studies that were done in another state and also in another area of California as well to prove that the Muslim way of burying the dead is the most ‘green’ way because we don’t use any chemicals,” he said. “We don’t embalm the body. We don’t add any chemicals. We just wash the body and bury it in a bit of cloth.”
Resident Mary Anne Groen, who lives on California Avenue on land just west of the Cordoba Center property, brought up other concerns about the Cordoba Center project’s relationship with neighbors. Her husband Martin Groen’s family has owned the property since 1960 and has seen many changes in San Martin, she said.
“What we would request of (county) planning is that story poles be put up to show the height of the buildings so that we can all as a community get a visual for what effect this will have on the property,” she said.
Other requests she would like for the county commission to consider is to have an environmental impact report take into consideration both the application of the Cordoba project as well as another proposed mobile home project nearby because she believes it’s cumulative on the impact of the area.
She would also like to see a deceleration lane built on Monterey Road for cars to turn into the project so that there is no dangerous backups on Monterey along the blind curve around the hill.
Several local Christian and Jewish clergy spoke in support of the project. Among them was Gilroy’s Saint Mary’s Church’s Father Jose Rubio who said, “It seems to me the environmental concerns have been addressed.” He was immediately shouted down by some people in the audience.
Morgan Hill’s Advent Lutheran Church Pastor Anita Warner read a statement expressing her church council’s “support of a fair process” for the center.
“We are grateful to be in community with our Muslim brothers and sisters and stand with them,” she read. “We expect this process will receive the same consideration as proposed building plans from any other religious community. We hope for and expect a clear, consistent and expeditious review process for their application.”
Emotions rose sharply at certain points of the discussion. One woman who said she was a Christian and lives in San Martin said she was concerned about the potential of “terrorist” activity from the Muslims at the center. A speaker who described himself as a Vietnam vet told the audience he thought the people who opposed the project were “bigots,” resulting in a shouting match.
Roland Velasco, a policy aide for Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents the South Valley region, said that the applications for permits to build the Cordoba Center have not been turned in and emphasized the importance of the public realizing “nothing is finalized.”
Abbass sees the SVIC’s second attempt at building the Cordoba Center as a different opportunity because they learned much from the first try four years ago.
“We looked at everything we’ve done, and there isn’t anything that we’re doing differently this time other than consulting with experts,” he said.“We’re talking with the county and closing every gap that we can to make it happen. They might sue the county again, but there will be no grounds.”