MERIDEN — As part of a pending lawsuit settlement, the city’s Planning Commission voted this week to approve a mosque’s application to relocate to a building on Research Parkway.
After the Planning Commission initially denied the Omar Islamic Center’s application in March 2019, the mosque appealed the decision in a federal lawsuit, claiming they satisfied all criteria for the special permit they sought and that the reasons for denial were “in bad faith and evidence the discriminatory intent of the commission.”
The City Council voted last week to settle the lawsuit, authorizing up to $45,000 in damages and directing the Planning Commission to reverse its March 2019 decision. Commissioners at the time said a mosque didn’t match the kind of commercial and industrial growth they wanted to see in the industrial zone where the property is located. Religion is not an accepted use in the zone, however, zoning regulations allow applicants to obtain a special permit for certain uses, like a school or house of worship.
On Tuesday night, the commission unanimously voted to reverse its decision after discussing the lawsuit during a 40-minute closed-door executive session with the city’s legal counsel. The commission did not have any public discussion before voting.
“It was the recommendation from outside counsel as a way to resolve this case and the Planning Commission agreed to take that recommendation and follow through with the vote last night,” Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said.
The city is being represented by the Berchem Moses P.C., with offices in Westport and Milford.
The property at 999 Research Parkway has sat vacant for many years. The owner plans to donate the building to the mosque rather than see it deteriorate. The mosque applied to relocate there last year because it had outgrown its meeting space in Middletown, mosque president Ahmed Badir said last year.
Badir helped found the Sunni mosque currently on East Main Street, restoring a vacant, run-down building into a neighborhood improvement. He said he intended to do the same thing with the Research Parkway property.
While the mosque would qualify for a property tax exemption, the mosque said last year that it intends to rent offices to professional members of the group and, as a result, put some of the space back on the tax rolls.
M. Farooque Mesiya, the building's current owner, sent a letter to the City Council and Planning Commission in February 2019 documenting his struggle trying to find a tenant for the site despite help from city staff and commercial real estate agents. Mesiya founded American Lightwave Systems Inc. in 1986 and later moved the company to 999 Research Parkway.
"Several attempts to sell the building to non-profit organizations were blocked by the city administration," Mesiya wrote. "The last attempt was to lease the building to a school in Wallingford which was also denied, although the clients came through the Meriden Economic Development organization."
Mesiya disputed the commission's argument that Research Parkway should be reserved only for industrial and commercial enterprises, saying the business model for buildings like his has been "obsolete for over a decade" and that businesses haven't been showing interest in Connecticut.
"Let us use the building for a good civic and useful purpose rather than be ravaged by remaining unoccupied for decades to come," he wrote in the letter.