Late one evening in June 2016, after hearing about plans for a new cemetery across the street from his home, David Silver typed out an email to his Stafford County supervisor.
“I am on well water,” he wrote to Supervisor Wendy Maurer, “and I am deeply concerned that this will affect the quality of my well water supply.”
Water often collected in Silver’s front yard after a heavy rain, he wrote, and parts of the 45-acre parcel of land on Garrisonville Road where the cemetery was planned were just 50 feet from his well.
Silver had already looked into what protections from contamination from cemeteries Virginia law afforded homeowners on private well water, he wrote. There were none. State code did, however, restrict cemeteries within 900 feet of wells that supply public water.
He wondered why the same standard didn’t apply to private wells. Silver asked the supervisor what she intended to do about it.
Less than two weeks later, Anthony Toigo, the county’s citizen action officer tasked with researching issues raised by residents, had encouraging news.
He had identified the property: It belonged to the All Muslim Association of America, which hadn’t yet filed plans for the cemetery but had operated one on Brooke Road for two decades. He’d also checked with the director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. As long as there was at least 100 feet between the homeowner’s well and the cemetery, it would pose no risk to public heath, according to his email to Maurer on June 21, 2016.
The email, as well as others between county officials over six months obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, details how a concern first raised by Silver led to a new county cemetery ordinance that effectively made it impossible for the Muslim burial ground to be developed.
The ordinance exceeds by nine times state health department regulations and sets up a potential legal challenge by the AMAA, which is asking the county to revisit the changes. Stafford-based attorney Clark Leming, who specializes in land-use issues, is representing the organization.
On Wednesday, the Planning Commission will take up the year-old ordinance it recommended, although it will likely take no action until after the new year.
Supervisor Maurer thinks the new ordinance, as it stands, is vital.
“I did not see why we would protect public tested and treated water more stringently than private untested and untreated water,” she said. “I could not tell the private citizen to pound sand. That is my bottom line.”
REVISING THE RULES
On June 22, 2016, a day after Maurer received word that the planned cemetery would not pose a public health problem, a member of the Planning Commission who’d been copied on the correspondence weighed in.
“This certainly doesn’t address the constituent’s question,” wrote Crystal Vanuch, vice chairwoman.
Vanuch is also a neighbor of the proposed cemetery on Garrisonville Road, with just 100 feet separating her address from the AMAA’s.
She, too, believed the same standard should apply to public drinking water and private wells, Vanuch said in the June 22, 2016, email to Maurer. She suggested setting up a meeting with the county attorney to send a new regulation to the Planning Commission.
The new cemetery ordinance was now underway.
Stafford’s planning staff consulted with the Virginia Department of Health. The county’s cemetery ordinance was actually overdue for a revision. It did not comply with state law.
By the end of August 2016, county staff had a new draft ready.
It called for 900 feet between cemeteries and public drinking sources and 100 feet between cemeteries and private wells—the maximum distance required by the state health department.
It was, wrote Stafford Planning Director Jeff Harvey, a defendable standard.
WATER QUALITY CONCERN
The Planning Commission formed a subcommittee tasked with taking on a new cemetery ordinance. As one of three members, Vanuch began collecting studies and articles on the potential for groundwater contamination, which she shared with members and county officials.
Among them: A 1998 study by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, which recommended that humans and animals be buried at least 800 feet from “any well, borehole or spring from which a potable water supply is drawn.”
Others included in her research were more ambivalent: A 1999 article in Mother Jones featured a number of experts who weighed in on the potential for formaldehyde to show up in drinking water. The conclusion: No one knew for sure.
A 2012 study by the University of South Africa looked at one cemetery located on a mountain slope. However, that research “did not include the pathogenic or organic releases from grave sites due to burials.”
The most recent study Vanuch shared with county officials was published in Poland in 2015 and looked at cemeteries in Africa, Australia and Brazil. “In moderate climate conditions,” the study found, “a relatively low impact of cemeteries on groundwater pollution caused by bacteria and viruses was observed.”
Erin Ling, a water quality extension associate at Virginia Tech, said in an email to The Free Lance–Star that there has been little research on the impact of cemeteries on groundwater.
The Virginia Department of Health does consider cemeteries as potential contamination sources, said Dwayne Roadcap, director of the agency’s Office of Drinking Water. Caskets are often made from metals and bodies embalmed, said Roy Soto, a project engineer with the office.
But the current regulations, which include the 100-foot maximum setback from private wells, adequately protect drinking water, he and Roadcap said in an interview with The Free Lance–Star.
Maurer said the health department provided her with no evidence that 100 feet was a sufficient setback for private wells when state law required 900 feet between cemeteries and public wells, a standard that dates at least as far back as 1950. She pointed to water contamination issues that have made national headlines, including the high levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich.
Maurer met with members of the AMAA, who assured her that the technology used to create its coffins prevented leaching. But Maurer said it was against the law to require the technology. The best option before her, she said, was to require the 900-foot setback from public and private wells.
“I cannot tell my public I’m going to protect city water more than private wells,” said Maurer. She had the same message for Stafford’s planning staff.
Vanuch did not answer specific questions from the The Free Lance–Star, including whether she’d fielded any public health concerns about existing Stafford cemeteries less than 900 feet from private wells, why the state health department standards were not cited as part of her research and if living next door to the land AMAA planned to use to bury its dead presented a conflict for her.
“All of the answers to your questions were discussed robustly in a multitude of subcommittee, planning commission and board of supervisor meetings, where we sought extensive scientific research and resident feedback,” Vanuch responded via email.
On Nov. 9, 2016, the Planning Commission voted 6–0 to recommend for adoption the county’s new cemetery ordinance. This time, the draft called for no burials within 900 feet of public drinking sources or private wells, as Maurer and Vanuch had advocated.
Now it was set for adoption by supervisors.
David Silver, who’d sent the first email to Maurer, spoke in support of it during a public hearing. “Stafford’s primary goal should be to protect the citizens,” he said, “and I believe the ordinance does that.”
It was also a relief, allowing him to stay in a home he purchased six years ago and plans to retire in, Silver said in emailed responses to questions from The Free Lance-Star.
“If a cemetery were built, I would have to move and the issue is I could no longer afford to live in Stafford due to the price of homes increasing. If I stay in my home the value will decrease and I will not be able to get the full value when the time comes to sell it and move into a nursing home if need be,” Silver wrote. “The establishment of the new ordinance has enabled me to relax and enjoy my home without the threat to my health or having to move.”
When it came up for a vote at a Stafford Board of Supervisors meeting Dec. 13, 2016, Chairman Paul Milde said the changes were presented as a routine housekeeping item.
The revised ordinance passed unanimously.
The nonprofit AMAA had first come to Stafford in 1989, buying property on Brooke Road to offer low-cost burials to its members, said AMAA president Aftabjan “John” Khan.
The group knew it would eventually run out of space. A search for new property ended in May 2015 with the purchase of 45 acres at 1508 Garrisonville Road. The property was already clear, with gently rolling hills that its former owners had used for hitting golf balls. Its zoning also allowed a cemetery by-right, which meant the group would have to do little more than submit a site plan to county planning staff.
AMAA members checked with neighbors to see whether they objected to a cemetery nearby. AMAA director Rafi Ahmed said they were exercising a tenant of their faith, which calls for being a good neighbor.
“We consider ourselves part of this community,” Ahmed said.
When one person took issue with a cemetery going in on Garrisonville Road, the AMAA bought her house.
By April 2017, as the Brooke Road cemetery edged closer to capacity, the group decided to move forward with the new project and hired Leming. It was he who discovered the new cemetery ordinance would complicate—if not make impossible—their plans.
A cemetery was no longer allowed by-right, meaning the project would have to go through a months-long process for approval. But the whole thing was now unlikely, anyway, Leming said. The new 900-foot requirement between cemeteries and private wells left the Garrisonville Road property unusable for that purpose.
Ahmed said the group was stunned, especially after emails between county officials showed that it was plans for the AMAA’s cemetery—and not coincidence—that had led to the ordinance overhaul just four months before.
“For something like this to be drummed up against us, to me, it’s very hurtful,” he said.
Khan said he believes that if a Christian group had wanted to put a cemetery on the property, no one would have taken issue with it.
“A church comes up, nobody has any complaints. What happens to a mosque?” Khan said, and in this case, a Muslim cemetery.
But Maurer said she acted solely out of concerns about water quality; it was only after she received the initial constituent’s concern that she learned who the land belonged to, she said.
Silver, as well as another neighbor, Glenn Patterson, said they didn’t want any cemetery across the street, regardless of who operated it.
“To suggest that this is anything other than a very real concern over our quality of life sounds to me like an attempt to redirect the narrative in a manner that portrays the AMAA as victims and therefore sympathetic figures,” Patterson said in an email. “I served in the Marine Corps for 11 years protecting the First Amendment rights that we enjoy in this country. I didn’t serve to protect Christian rights, white, black or any other group you care to name.”
In fact, he said, if the Department of Veterans Affairs wanted to put a cemetery across the street “I would be just as opposed to it and fighting it every bit as hard.”
TAKING A SECOND LOOK
Supervisor Milde said he did not know his vote would impact plans by the AMAA, which has quietly operated a burial ground in his district for two decades.
“America was founded on the individual’s right to worship their God freely. And human dignity demands each person a final resting place. To deny any person this basic right goes against every principle upon which our nation was founded,” Milde said. “Government exists to secure and defend our God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
After adding the new ordinance to the board’s September meeting agenda, supervisors voted to send it back to the Planning Commission for another look. It is unclear what action, if any, members will take.
On a recent visit to the Garrisonville property now in limbo, Khan said he hoped the county would allow his organization to build the cemetery as it intended.
“We make life hard for the living,” Khan said. “Why are we making it hard for the dead, as well?”
This story has been updated to include email comments from residents who live near the AMAA property that arrived after The Free Lance-Star’s publication deadline.
Kristin Davis: 540/374-5403 email@example.com