The Mosque, Zoning, & Community Facilities

October 21, 2010ZONE

The Mosque (which, of course, isn’t at Ground Zero) is as-of-right – since it is a community facility use and a “Use Group Three” house of worship.

Interestingly, the champions of religious freedom and ardent defenders of the right to build houses of worship without interference by local authorities have recently been associated with conservative organizations. Indeed, Federal Defense of Religious Freedoms Act – was drafted and tirelessly promoted by the Administration of George W. Bush and many right-of-center groups. The Act, while not binding on local zoning boards or planning authorities, forbids municipal constraints on the development of houses of worship. In New York City, our “community facility rules” clearly favor houses of worship – as well as other uses (like medical facilities, schools, and colleges) that are recognized as essential public functions. Indeed, in many low- and medium-density zoning districts, these rules permit such uses to be 50% and 100% larger than residential uses (that is to say, homes) in the same area! For example, in R6 districts (which are mapped throughout the outer Boroughs), the FAR for community facility uses is 4.8, while the residential FAR is 2.4. Regarding the construction of new houses of worship, zoning policy in New York is quite hospitable – indeed, some might say overly permissive.

For many years, the tallest structures and the largest (and grandest) buildings in New York were churches. Steeples were initially the tallest edifices in the City. And, of course, house of worship as gathering places were historically much larger (and often grander) than the homes nearby. Zoning recognizes this phenomenon – according houses of worship favorable status in terms of floor area, height limits (steeples – and minarets – can “pierce” the height limit) and parking.

Of course, the “controversy” transcends mere zoning policy. Still, it is interesting to note that many of the leaders of the ‘keep regulations away from limitations on religious expression’ movement, are seeking any means possible to deny the Islamic Center’s developers the right to build.