Stafford County leaders voted Tuesday to maintain an ordinance that critics say effectively blocked a proposed Muslim cemetery.
But the issue is not over, as the U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate accusations of religious discrimination.
After an impassioned discussion, the Board of Supervisors voted 3–2 to keep the nearly 2-year-old ordinance that prohibits cemeteries within 900 feet of private wells, reservoirs or streams that drain into reservoirs. That requirement greatly exceeds Virginia Department of Health standards, though state law does mandate a distance of at least 900 feet between cemeteries and public drinking sources.
Supervisors Cindy Shelton and Jack Cavalier cast the dissenting votes, and Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer abstained. Supervisor Gary Snellings was absent from the meeting, but apparently asked for a decision to be deferred.
The Planning Commission voted in May to recommend no changes to the ordinance.
The All Muslim Association of America 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 Muslim cemetery.
Supervisor Wendy Maurer, whose Rock Hill District includes the proposed cemetery, said doing away with the ordinance would discriminate against rural homeowners who get their water from private wells. She also accused the AMAA of offering to raise money on her behalf during a meeting last year to discuss the cemetery.
She said there was not “a direct offer of money” in exchange for her support on the matter, but that “the inference was concerning enough that I reported the meeting to the county administrator and the County Attorney’s Office.”
Attorney Clark Leming, who represents the AMAA, said he had not heard that accusation until now. Asked what the Muslim group planned to do next, he replied: “I don’t think the next step is up to us. I think, given what the Board of Supervisors has done, really the next steps are up to the U.S. Department of Justice.”
Leming added: “We’re very sorry that, in an unusual vote, three members of the Board of Supervisors have decided to take no steps to try to rectify the problems for the AMAA created by the cemetery ordinance.”
Supervisors Meg Bohmke, Tom Coen and Maurer voted to retain the restrictions.
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 the cemetery would contaminate nearby wells influenced the changes.
In a recent report, county officials recommended that supervisors refer one of two proposals to the Planning Commission for a recommendation. One of those options would exempt the requirement for cemeteries and wells to be 900 feet apart on a case-by-case basis, while the other would do away with it entirely.
Danayaal Raja, an AMAA board member and Stafford resident, encouraged supervisors to eliminate the setback and adopt state standards instead. State law prohibits private wells from being built within 100 feet of cemeteries.
Stafford resident Jim Fry took the opposite position, saying he’s lived in the county nearly five decades and has “never seen anything as reckless or ridiculous” as the proposals to relax restrictions on cemeteries. “Do not let [the AMAA] use the DOJ into strong-arming you to reverse yourself,” he said.
David Silver, who lives near the proposed cemetery site, said private wells and public water sources should have the same protection from potential contamination. Otherwise, he said, the county would be violating the Constitution’s Equal Protections Clause.
“The county should not allow one group’s special interests to impact the policies of all the residents,” he said.
Maurer offered a lengthy defense of the ordinance and categorically denied the AMAA’s accusations of religious discrimination. She displayed a stack of reports that she says support the county’s requirements, including a 1998 study by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe that says humans and animals should be buried at least 800 feet from “any well, borehole or spring from which a potable water supply is drawn.”