A Muslim nonprofit organization is formally asking Stafford County to waive an ordinance that effectively blocked the group’s proposed cemetery and led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into accusations of religious discrimination.
The All Muslim Association of America, or AMAA, submitted an application Friday seeking a variance from the seven-member Board of Zoning Appeals, which could take up the matter at its meeting Jan. 29. A divided Stafford Board of Supervisors voted in September to maintain the 2-year-old ordinance at issue, despite the Justice Department investigation launched in the spring.
Attorney Clark Leming, who represents the AMAA, emailed The Free Lance–Star a copy of the variance request, which notes that the county’s ordinance is much stricter than state requirements for cemeteries. The Muslim group could appeal to Stafford Circuit Court if the request is denied.
Supervisors would still take a final vote on the cemetery if the request is granted, but Leming said the variance would “remove a great deal of discretion that the [board] would have to go a different way.”
The AMAA purchased the 29-acre parcel for the proposed cemetery on Garrisonville Road in June 2015 after confirming with county employees that it could develop a cemetery there, according to the variance request. But nearby residents caught wind of the plan and privately raised concerns to county officials that the cemetery would contaminate their wells.
In December 2016, supervisors voted to prohibit new cemeteries within 900 feet of private wells, reservoirs and streams that drain into reservoirs. The AMAA learned about the new requirement the following year as it prepared to submit plans to the county.
Proponents of the ordinance say legitimate health concerns, not religion, was the motivation for the change.
The Virginia Department of Health’s more relaxed standards say new wells should not be within 100 feet of cemeteries, though the state does require a distance of 900 feet between cemeteries and public water supplies.
The AMAA’s variance application says the ordinance did not impact any other existing or proposed cemeteries. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance, particularly for a county that wants to hold out its reputation as being business friendly, to take a posture where something can turn around 180 degrees like that,” Leming said.
The Muslim nonprofit held out hope that the county would overturn the ordinance, he said, but submitted the variance request after it became clear supervisors would not make changes.
Supervisor Wendy Maurer, whose Rock Hill District includes the site of the proposed cemetery, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer, who could be the swing vote on the matter, abstained from a vote three months ago on whether to keep the ordinance. He explained that he was not on the board when the ordinance first passed, adding: “I just feel that it’s not appropriate for me to participate until the … complaint has been resolved to the satisfaction of the [DOJ] or the legal system.”
In April, the Justice Department informed Stafford that it was launching an investigation into how the county’s zoning law treats religious uses, particularly the Muslim cemetery. A DOJ spokeswoman has declined to comment on the status of the investigation.