What was expected to be an end to a 13-year journey for the South Valley Islamic Center (SVIC) trying to open the Cordoba Center mosque and cemetery in San Martin, instead brought another set of changes and obstacles for the project.
At its May 23 meeting, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission, in a 4-3 vote, rejected the project as it was submitted. Instead, commissioners tabled the item to Aug. 22 and directed planners to return with a drastically scaled-down project.
SVIC will need to decide if they would like to go back to the drawing board and recreate plans for the multi-use project. SVIC members have previously said they needed the 20,000-square-foot space to accommodate their current and future members.
The decision came at the end of a five-hour hearing on the item, but the crowd never wavered. A majority of those attending the meeting at the county government building in San Jose were members or supporters for the South Valley Islamic Center.
The meeting hosted a standing-room-only crowd—with dozens of speakers lining up to speak in support of the proposed facility. Many of the speakers were prominent community members, local politicians and interfaith leaders.
Ultimately, the planning commissioners who voted against the project—Bob Levy, Kathy Schmidt, Erin Gil and Vicki Moore—said the size and scale of the proposed mosque, community center, cemetery and related facilities were not consistent with the county’s general plan. Supporters in the room were visibly upset, but not surprised—in a project that has encountered obstacles in every step, another contingency was not unexpected.
In an official statement the SVIC said: “Our collective faith gives us strength to endure through these final stages of what has been a very long and arduous journey.”
Hamdy Abbass, board member of SVIC, said there has not yet been a decision on how the group will proceed with the project, but that the board members along with the project developer and legal counsel will be meeting Monday to discuss next steps.
Abbass said the process has been frustrating. “That is the most scrutinized project that has ever come out of Santa Clara County,” he told this news organization.
Prior to the planning commission meeting last week, county staff had recommended the approval of the project—as long as it included certain mitigation measures. The San Martin Advisory Committee met twice in the two weeks leading up to the planning commission hearing to discuss the Cordoba Center, but could not reach a majority-supported recommendation. But the advisory committee was angling for a project at least half the size proposed by the SVIC.
The advisory group’s recommendation would not have been binding in the planning commission’s decision. The Cordoba Center proposal doesn’t require approval from the Board of Supervisors—except for its cemetery.
SVIC’s current proposal would make it the largest rural-residential zoned structure in San Martin. The cemetery would have room for 3,000 graves spread out over time, with a county-proposed cap of 30 burials a year.
The SVIC bought the property for the Cordoba Center in 2006. After three proposals over the years, the center found new life in 2016 with a 15.8-acre plan that included a mosque, community center, cemetery, orchard and children’s camp.
The planning commission unanimously certified the final environmental impact report for the project. Yet despite providing mitigation measures for the points of public concern—through burial plans for the cemetery, drainage basins for flooding, large foliage to keep out noise, along with other efforts—the commission now said the project didn’t align with the county’s general plan.
All of the commissioners that voted against the project said they would support the site being used for the mosque and the cemetery. But they feared that approving a development of that scale in a rural setting would set a precedent by inviting other applicants to angle for other large projects.
Schmidt cast the critical swing vote last week. “I’m torn here,” she said.
If the commissioners had denied the project all together, the Islamic center could have appealed the project to the county Board of Supervisors. Commissioner Aaron Resendez urged the commission to just deny the project instead of directing the staff and applicant to come back, which would have allowed supervisors to make the ultimate decision.
Commission Vice Chair Marc Rauser, who lives close to the project site, voted in favor of the project. Rauser said the Islamic center had been great neighbors and that the environmental report was comprehensive. “This is gonna stick out,” he said. “Not because it’s bad, but because it’s the nicest thing in our neighborhood.”
“We’re confident that we will be able to resolve this remaining issue [in August] and receive the final approval for the project,” the South Valley Islamic Center said in a statement to supporters. “Our deepest gratitude for your dedication to our cause and unwavering support.”
The SVIC currently worships in a converted barn in San Martin. At the planning meeting, members estimated their congregation to be around 100 people.