A Stafford County leader decried Tuesday what he called last month’s “sham of a meeting” at which the Board of Supervisors voted to maintain an ordinance that critics say effectively blocked a proposed Muslim cemetery.
Supervisor Jack Cavalier criticized Chairwoman Meg Bohmke for her handling of the Sept. 18 meeting, saying: “Both current and former supervisors have told me they have never seen such a spectacle.”
Board members took an unusual 3–2 vote at that meeting to stand behind the disputed ordinance amid a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into allegations of religious discrimination, with Cavalier and Supervisor Cindy Shelton voting no. Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer abstained and Supervisor Gary Snellings was absent because of a family emergency.
Snellings, the vice chairman, had asked that the matter be deferred until he could vote. Cavalier took aim at Bohmke for “allowing a vote on a very important issue that resulted in a minority of the full board making a decision that may result in more problems.” He added: “The discourtesy and disrespect shown … for her vice chairman is appalling.”
Cavalier also said Supervisor Wendy Maurer should not have been given such wide latitude to comment about the cemetery controversy. Maurer aggressively defended the county against a Muslim nonprofit’s accusation of religious discrimination and suggested that the organization even benefited from political favoritism in the past.
The nonprofit All Muslim Association of America last year asked the county to reconsider a nearly 2-year-old cemetery ordinance after learning that it would prohibit the organization’s planned burial ground on 1508 Garrisonville Road. 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.
Bohmke rebutted Cavalier’s criticism and rejected his request for her to step down as chairwoman. Nothing in the board’s bylaws says she can shut down a fellow supervisor, she said, adding: “And I did walk over to the county attorney [at last month's meeting] and asked her if I had that ability.” In hindsight, Bohmke said, maybe she could have called for a recess during Maurer’s remarks.
“It was not a very fun night for any of us,” she said. “It was all very uncomfortable. I did not even know what was going to be said until about 15 or 20 minutes before the meeting.”
At the September meeting, Maurer noted that the county last year paid the All Muslim Association of America more than $600,000 for undeveloped land the nonprofit owned near Crow's Nest Natural Area Preserve. She suggested that former board Chairman Paul Milde orchestrated the purchase as a political favor to the nonprofit’s members who donated to or supported his campaign. Maurer later told The Free Lance–Star that she highlighted the deal to show that the county's history with the organization is not one of discrimination.
Milde, who made an unsuccessful bid for the House of Delegates instead of seeking re-election to the board in 2017, vigorously denied the allegation. Supervisors, Maurer included, voted unanimously to buy the Muslim nonprofit’s land on Brooke Road with the stated goal of preserving forests and wetlands near Crow’s Nest and protecting a nearby heron rookery.
Maurer, responding to Cavalier’s remarks, thanked Bohmke for letting her speak. “There was every opportunity for every other board member to say their piece,” she said. The cemetery at issue is in her Rock Hill District.
Dudenhefer also noted Tuesday that he abstained from the vote on maintaining the ordinance because he was not on the board when it first passed in December 2016. “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,” he said.
The All Muslim Association of America bought its proposed cemetery site on Garrisonville Road for $800,000 in 2015, about 18 months before the county passed its disputed ordinance prohibiting new cemeteries within 900 feet of private wells, reservoirs and streams that drain into reservoirs. 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.
Emails show that concerns the Muslim cemetery would contaminate nearby wells influenced the setback, but that issue never came up during public meetings at the time.