Stafford leaders are considering two proposals to relax a county ordinance that effectively blocked a Muslim cemetery and led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into charges of religious discrimination.
The proposals center on the county’s nearly 2-year-old requirement for cemeteries and private wells to be more than 900 feet apart. One would exempt that requirement, with approval from the Board of Supervisors, if soil evaluations found “no reasonable likelihood” that a proposed cemetery would contaminate nearby wells. The other would do away with it altogether, though supervisors would still have the final say over cemetery proposals.
Supervisors are scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to refer one of those options to the Planning Commission for a recommendation or maintain the existing ordinance. The Planning Commission already voted in May to recommend no changes to the ordinance, but supervisors have taken no action since then.
The All Muslim Association of America, or AMAA, last year asked the county to reconsider the ordinance after learning that it would prohibit the organization’s planned cemetery on 1508 Garrisonville Road. And 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 proposed Muslim cemetery.
Supervisors—on a recommendation from the Planning Commission—passed the disputed ordinance in December 2016. Emails obtained by The Free Lance–Star indicate that concerns about the Muslim cemetery’s impact on nearby wells influenced the changes, which greatly exceed state standards.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Meg Bohmke declined to offer an opinion on the proposed changes, calling it a “very complicated matter.” Supervisors have met behind closed doors at least twice in recent weeks to discuss the DOJ’s probe.
“We have discussed this a lot in closed session, and we feel that this needs to be discussed with the public now,” Bohmke said. “And we need to make some decisions as a board and move forward.”
Attorney Clark Leming, who represents the Muslim group, said county leaders may be signaling a willingness to reconsider what he called the “onerous, unsupportable and unprecedented setback requirements initiated when the AMAA neighbors and county” learned about plans for the cemetery.
But the county is not rethinking its stipulation that applications for cemeteries go through the same process as rezoning requests, which require supervisors’ approval. Supervisors could theoretically impose the restrictions at issue during that process, even if the ordinance no longer required a 900-foot setback, Leming said.
“What is still missing is a recognition that cemeteries are a low-impact, long-established and necessary historical use that pose virtually no impact to adjacent properties,” he wrote in an email.
John Khan, vice president of the AMAA, said last year that he thinks nobody would have taken issue with a Christian cemetery on the property, an accusation opponents of the burial ground vigorously deny.
The Muslim nonprofit bought the land for $800,000 in May 2015, when the county’s ordinance permitted a cemetery there. It opened a cemetery on Brooke Road in 1996, but ran out of plots in April last year.
A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment Friday on the investigation.