There was much hugging and backslapping in the basement of Meriden's City Hall Tuesday night, after the Zoning Board of Appeals approved the request of a local Islamic group to use an East Main Street building as a mosque.
"What has been the (reaction) in other parts of the state...has not been the response in Meriden – we're very appreciative of that," said Refai Arefin, referencing the opposition Connecticut Muslims have faced in opening mosques in other towns.
Arefin is both a member of the Islamic Association of Southern Connecticut and the lawyer who represented the group Tuesday night in its bid to move into the long-vacant brick Victorian building at 189 East Main.
Now that it's gotten approval, the association will move into the building in the next few months, its president Ahmed Bedir said.
"I thank the board for giving us this opportunity," Bedir, a Meriden resident, said after board members voted to allow the use of the commercially zoned building's first floor as a house of worship.
The association is currently comprised of about 20 local families, about five of whom started worshiping together last April, and have since been gathering on the second floor of a building at 64 E. Main St, according to Bedir.
As the group grew it sought larger housing. One member's brother, Amin Noori, owns the property at 189 E. Main, and welcomed the group's interest in leasing space after much of the building had languished vacant for years.
Noori, who lives in Newtown, purchased the building in 2007, he said, as an investment property after he "fell in love" with the structure, built in 1870.
He spent a year restoring it, hoping to attract businesses there, but the building has for years sat empty. In the last few months, Noori and his Meriden-based brother said, windows on the historic structure have been broken and items like copper have been stolen from inside – and they have on several occasions found men sleeping on the porch with beer cans in hand.
Noori said he believes having tenants will dissuade further trespassing and other crimes.
Opposition to the building's new tenants at the meeting came from two neighbors – The Polish Legion of American Veterans and Richard Carabetta who represents a nearby condominium complex – who said they did not oppose the use of the building as a mosque, but feared an influx in parking and traffic issues around the structure, which is across from City Hall and down the street from the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center.
The Polish Legion of American Veterans sits at the back of the building, at 193 E. Main Street, and though it used to own the building itself, according to leaders, it now leases its space from Noori. Legion members said they were concerned that there wouldn't be enough parking for both groups during special events at the legion that can draw upwards of about 100 people.
Mosque representatives said that there would likely be no conflict. Their 20 families would be at the location likely only on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, from about 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and sometimes on Saturdays for community events.
The parking lot that will serve both organizations has about 39 spots, according to officials - about 19 each for the legion and the mosque, and thus one spot for each family affiliated with the mosque.
"Twenty vehicles in Meriden is a drop in the bucket," Arefin said, estimating about one car per family and saying that he didn't know of any other possible use of the commercial building that would take up fewer spaces.
Arefin told the Zoning Board and large audience assembled that the association would work with the Polish Legion and other nearby groups to ensure that they weren't having large events on the same day.
The Islamic Association does hope to expand its membership and grow out of the location at some point, Arefin said, telling the audience that there was no long-term intention to remain in the leased building.
Because the Association may grow, the board approved its use of the building only conditionally - it will have to be reviewed every six months until its first year, and once a year from then on.
If parking needs increase in the meantime, owner Noori said he can expand the existing parking area to help keep cars off the street.