A Muslim organization has been planning to build a mosque and community center in rural San Martin, in Santa Clara County, for over a decade, but the project has run into opposition and government delays. Is it proper protocol or Islamophobia?
Every Friday Muslim community members in the small town of San Martin gather at a converted barn for prayer. Sheep graze just outside the barn surrounded by rolling hills.
About 60 people are here, some coming from nearby towns including Gilroy and Morgan Hill.
The space is used not just for prayer but also for Sunday school and community gatherings.
Karen Musa, a resident of San Martin and president of the South Valley Islamic Center, a collective of over 100 Muslim families in the area, says, “As you can see it’s a very small barn, and Sunday schools are really hard to do. We have four classes, and it's very noisy”
Musa says they’ve long since outgrown this barn that they’ve been using for the past 17 years.
“A lot of our members cannot come here to pray because there’s no parking,” she says. “And there’s no space in here to pray. So they have to go elsewhere which is a hardship.”
The nearest mosque is about 30 miles away in San Jose, but with Bay Area traffic, Musa says it can take over an hour each way.
That’s why the SVIC has been planning to build a mosque on a 15-acre plot of land that it purchased over a decade ago.
The project, called the Cordoba Center, includes a mosque, a community center, a Muslim cemetery, and a campground. Musa and Noshaba Afzal, a member of the SVIC who lives in nearby Gilroy, show me around.
“You’re seeing beautiful open fields that are golden that we’re famous for in California,” says Afzal. “And to your right, you’re seeing a beautiful hill that we will have for our summer retreat for children.”
Just east of the site, there’s a food processing facility and a cement factory. Mostly, the area is open and hilly.
Musa says the site is perfect for the project.
“When we found the 16 acres, and it was for sale, and it was the right zoning, and it had good access, and it was available and vacant, we said, ‘Well, we could build our own,’” she says. “We had no idea it was going to take 12 years to get a permit.”
And they still don’t have one.
The Cordoba Center project was unanimously approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2012. But it was still controversial.
Some people voiced environmental concerns. Others argued about the community’s rural character.
Michael Brookman with the nonprofit San Martin Neighborhood Alliance spoke at a public hearing about the project in 2012.
“Hear us! Protect our community by maintaining its personality,” he said. “Do not get caught up in political expediency or pressure. Reconsider the land use permit, initial report and ensure future residents of san martin will have the same chance to experience this rural flavor we now have.”
Santa Clara County was sued by a group called the People’s Coalition for Government Accountability, which requested an Environmental Impact Review. But some members of SVIC say the opposition had Islamophobic undertones.
One of the main opponents of the project, a group called Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots, invited a speaker named Peter Friedman to the town. He’s the founder of IslamThreat.com
At a restaurant in Solano County in 2012, he said, “On 9/11, there were 900 mosques in the U.S. There are over 2500 today. What happened after 9/11 was we bent over so far to show how tolerant we are that it created this ethical vacuum in this country, and the Muslims said, ‘Let’s get in there.’”
Gilroy San Martin Patriots president Georgine Scott Codiga declined to comment for this story.
The SVIC decided to go ahead with the Environmental Impact Review. That means the group relinquished its initial permit and submitted a new proposal. A senior planner with Santa Clara County says about half of the projects that size require an EIR.
President Karen Musa says it’s been a lengthy and costly process.
“Costco, big companies, Shell Oil. You’d expect them to have to do an EIR,” she says. “But a small religious community to have to take on this burden is really questionable.”
The result of the draft EIR came out last month, and the conclusion stated: “Less than Significant impact, with mitigation.” That’s the lowest ranking after “No impact.”
Despite those results, many residents still have concerns, about flooding and groundwater pollution. Because San Martin is an unincorporated town, residents use wells for their drinking water, and in the past, they’ve dealt with contamination.
Community members had a lot to say about this at a public meeting on July 12th hosted by the planning commission.
One resident said, “Is the county of Santa Clara going to take care of each and every person’s well and inspect them regularly? We don’t want to be like Flint, Michigan.”
Another said, “The proposed cemetery is a particular concern, as it is sited immediately adjacent to homes dependent on well water.”
The EIR does mention a potential impact to water quality, but with mitigation measures such as groundwater monitoring and an annual limit on the number of burials, the impact would be negligible.
Sal Akhter is a member of the SVIC and project manager of the EIR. He thinks the concerns are based on fear and not fact.
“The first time around in 2012 the opposition was mainly based on Islamophobia,” he says. “This time around they are very careful in trying to hide and veil their opposition.”
He says his wife, who wears hijab, was actually confronted at the public meeting about the project in July.
“One lady walked up to her and told her to her face, ‘No Muslims in our community,’” he says. “Prior to that, she was also given literature at a local Costco about the evils of Islam.”
But people who oppose the project, including Kim Zilliox, insist it’s not about religion.
“The main issue I have is that every project that goes into our community of San Martin is supposed to serve the community and this project doesn’t serve our community,” she says.
Zilliox moved to San Martin with her family this year from San Jose.
“There’s maybe a couple residents of San Martin that will practice there. Lets even say 10 out of 7000,” she says. “Its such a small percentage of who lives in San Martin.”
San Martin is small. But the center is meant to be a place for Muslims from all over the South Valley to congregate. And other buildings for religious minorities, such as a Buddhist temple, already exist in the area. Plans for a major expansion of a local Hindu temple were recently approved by the planning commission, with little objection from residents.
The SVIC members say the county required them to project their growth into their new proposal. So they planned for a larger community center to accommodate up to 500 people both indoors and outdoors, compared with 150 in the original proposal.
It feels, to them, like a lot of requirements. Other large-scale developments proposed for that area have received less attention from the community. That includes two RV parks, one of which would be directly adjacent to the Cordoba Center site. It’s about the same size, at 15 acres, and the plans consist of 124 stalls for RVs, a community lodge, pool, playground, and a parking lot.
After 12 years, SVIC members remain determined.
“Some of our people in our community, they are raising the 3rd generation here in San Martin: the 3rd generation,” says Sal Akther. “They are veterans, people serving active duty military here, farmers, tech workers, professionals, all walks of life. We’ve been here for generations, we are not going anywhere.”
Whether or not they get their mosque approved, the feeling of being singled out for their religion persists for Muslims in this community. And that’s important in a time when national politics are alienating many Muslims in the United States.
The Santa Clara County Planning Commission is expected to meet again this fall to consider the proposal.