Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

LA development guided by powerful people and relatively few voters

Some critics have charged that development in Los Angeles is influenced too much by powerful people. Yet, when voters had an opportunity this week to vote on increased regulation of development (Measure S), relatively few people turned out:

In the end, it failed by an overwhelming margin, garnering only 70,000 votes in a city of almost 4 million people. It’s a reassuring sign…

It’s hard to read too much into an election in which hardly anyone voted.

While it was a primary election (where turnout is typically low), this measure would have affected development throughout the city. Does this suggest residents aren’t that interested in development?

Maybe the voters save their attention for local development issues and LA has plenty:

Some of the same people who pushed for the passage of Measure S sued the city over an update to Hollywood’s community plan. In Granada Hills, neighbors are fighting a 440-unit apartment complex. That project conforms to that neighborhood’s newly rewritten community plan, but some residents say it’s too big.

Development can be tricky in that many residents might be very aware of what is happening next door or on the same block (particularly if it affects their property values or their children) but not have much knowledge or concern about matters in other parts of the city. In a big city like Los Angeles, residents may not be very familiar with the daily happenings of other locations. And, this is Los Angeles, famously the poster child for decentralization.

In other words, talking about development in the abstract might be a difficult sell, even in locations like this where housing prices are high for all.

UPDATE 3/9/17 9:08 PM: Here are more exact figures on how many LA residents decided the fate of this sweeping development regulation:

The Los Angeles Times reported late on Tuesday that just 11.4 percent of the electorate participated in the election, despite the fact that the mayor, half the city council, and several heavyweight ballot measures were all up for debate. In Tuesday’s election, apathy won.

Read further for an argument on why measures like this that are so broad should not be on primary ballots.

“A Century of American Garbage” mapped

A map visualization of American landfills shows their spread and growth:

Widely considered to be the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., the Fresno garbage dump, which opened in 1937, has the dubious distinction of being named to both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the nation’s list of Superfund sites. That’s a funny pair of categories to straddle, but it illustrates an important point: Trash is a starring character in the American story, even as we continue to wrestle with its consequences…

The map really starts to blaze toward the middle of the century. That’s when landfills started to proliferate around the U.S., thanks in part to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which created a federal office tasked with managing trash. By the mid-1970s, states were mandated to put some regulations in place. Landfills became more numerous, and they got larger, too. On the map, the larger circles denote more sprawling landfills. The largest dumps approach 1,620 acres.

At the end of the visualization, the landfill map looks similar to a population map. Most of the landfills are located near major cities. This makes sense: you don’t want big landfills in population centers but you don’t want to pay too much to send it far away.

Yet, I imagine this view at the national level obscures where exactly these landfills are located. If I was guessing, I would say the majority of landfills are located in two locations:

(1) the former edges of metropolitan regions – a landfill that opened in the 1950s might have been outside the suburban radius then but now is well within the boundaries of the metropolitan area

(2) the current edges of metropolitan regions – somewhere in the exurbs or within  an hour drive of the boundaries

NIMBY means that landfills in recent decades could probably get nowhere close to residential developments.

No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?

$8 billion to reroute most freight traffic around Chicago suburbs

The railroad bottleneck in Chicago is real but a new proposal suggests a way to route much of the freight traffic around the outer edges of the region:

In the 21st century, the plan by Great Lakes Transportation Inc. is rare to the point of being unbelievable: Building an $8 billion, 278-mile-long, two-track freight railroad through northeastern Illinois…

But most of the more than 400 people who showed up Tuesday morning at a federal “scoping” hearing in Belvidere weren’t thinking about convenience to people living 50 miles to the east in the suburbs. Many wore stickers showing their opposition to the project, called the Great Lakes Basin Rail Line.

Instead, they told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s environmental studies staff that such a railroad would split up farms that have been owned by their families for 100 years. That it would threaten underground water supplies with pollution from spilled chemicals, would slow local ambulance crews and firefighters, would take the world’s best soil out of agricultural production, would lower their property values, could cause drainage problems on their farmland and would fill their quiet rural townships with train noise.

Great Lakes Basin Transportation Inc. is headed by former software entrepreneur Frank Patton and reportedly is supported by 14 investors. The proposed railroad is designed to give the area’s six “Class I” railroads — BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, plus the small Wisconsin & Southern Railway — a way to send long-distance freight trains around metropolitan Chicago rather than through it.

This is still is years from becoming a reality with the number of studies that would need to be completed as well as the actual funding and construction. Yet, it will be interesting to see how the concerns of these property owners are weighed against the interests of the entire Chicago region. Many communities would be very happy with this chance to see fewer freight trains. For some reason, this reminds me of some of the property owners near O’Hare Airport who have put up a consistent fight against expansion even as such plans would benefit the entire region.

In the long run, I would assume the interests of these property owners will matter less than the funding and completion issues that come from such a massive project.

Opposition to a proposed mosque in suburban Palos Park

A group wants to convert a former church into a mosque in Palos Park and has encountered opposition:

An anonymous flier circulated in mailboxes and online this month decried plans to open a mosque and community center at the site of a former church in this southwest suburb, roughly a mile from the home of 72-year-old Omar Najib, who intends to pray there.

The Muslim American Society bought the property at 12300 S. 80th Ave. in December and plans to do minor maintenance at the site, with no opening day scheduled yet. The leaflet titled “Save Palos” accused the house of worship of threatening to erode housing values and congest traffic…

Opposition to new mosques has become “almost a given” in the Chicago area as well as throughout the country, a brand of Islamophobia often shrouded in concerns over zoning or urban planning, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C.

Residents in Bayonne, N.J., rallied last month against plans for a Muslim community center there, bearing signs that read “Stop the Mosque” and “If the Mosque Comes the Mayor Go’s” (sic). Around the same time, members of a Christian group spoke out against a mosque scheduled to open this spring at the site of a former South Milwaukee, Wis., church. In late November, tempers also flared at a forum over an Islamic center proposed in Fredericksburg, Va.

Even as mosques and other non-Christian religious buildings have become more common in the Chicago suburbs, they still occasionally encounter opposition. See earlier posts about mosques and opposition here, here, here, and here. That there are national discussions about Muslims and ongoing conflict with Muslim groups only adds to typical NIMBY concerns from suburbanites.

One hurdle that new religious groups can encounter are local governments which may or may not support their groups. The end of this particular article suggests the mayor of Palos Park “immediately condemned the anonymous leaflet as cowardly.” Yet, would the local government feel the same way if a vocal and sizable portion of the community rallied against the new mosque and community center?