Stafford County officials’ latest attempt to end a federal lawsuit against the county seems to be a non-starter for lawyers representing the All Muslim Association of America.
“We’re very happy [supervisors] repealed the ordinances. I think that’s a great move,” said Melanie Westover Yanez, an attorney representing the AMAA. “Obviously [the ordinances] weren’t necessary in the first place, and an impediment to development of the cemetery, but until Stafford County allows AMAA to build its cemetery, this case isn’t going away.”
In June, the AMAA filed a lawsuit claiming Stafford County had violated its religious rights by blocking its plans to build a cemetery in the 1500 block of Garrisonville Road.
Since then, the county has doled out $313,000 in taxpayer dollars defending ordinance changes approved since the AMAA purchased the property.
“We are open for a resolution, but we’ve heard nothing from the county,” said Yanez.
The lawsuit names Stafford County and Stafford’s Board of Supervisors as defendants, and calls the county’s 2016 decision to revise its cemetery ordinance “discriminatory” and “arbitrary,” and alleges the county and its supervisors adopted a more restrictive ordinance than required by the state “to preclude a Muslim association from building a cemetery on land zoned for that purpose.”
Since 2016, the county has changed its cemetery ordinance three times.
Shortly after the AMAA purchased the property, Stafford changed the setback distance between a cemetery and a private drinking well from 100 feet to 900 feet. Facing mounting pressure from the lawsuit, supervisors changed the distance to 656 feet in August.
In October, the Stafford Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors each voted 4–3 to repeal the changes that prevented the construction of the Muslim cemetery. The move put Stafford back in line with state guidelines of a 100-foot setback.
Attorneys for the AMAA allege the original campaign to change the cemetery ordinance to 900 feet was spearheaded by Rock Hill Supervisor Crystal Vanuch, who was chairwoman of the county’s Planning Commission at the time. Vanuch lives across the street from the proposed cemetery.
The lawsuit claims Vanuch reached out to county officials to express concerns about AMAA’s proposed cemetery and “was ‘extremely concerned’ about AMAA’s intentions to develop a Muslim cemetery on the property, the ‘safety to our county’ and the impact on her property value.”
The more restrictive 900-foot setback that followed prevented the AMAA from establishing its cemetery, prompting the federal lawsuit.
On Thursday, Yanez said the county submitted a filing to the court arguing their latest vote repealing the prior setbacks should be enough to squelch the lawsuit.
“The repeal is a positive step, but it doesn’t extinguish the case,” said Yanez.
On Wednesday, the AMAA responded to Stafford’s latest action by filing a request to amend their complaint in federal court. The amendment states: “While the repeal removes the unnecessary setbacks and discretionary approval processes that encumbered AMAA’s ability to build a Muslim cemetery on the property, AMAA’s case remains live and ripe for adjudication for two reasons.”
According to the amendment, those reasons include compensating the AMAA for damages and the county’s continued violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and AMAA’s “constitutional rights through their new and novel misuse of the Virginia Code’s consent requirements.”
“For four years now, our clients have suffered damages as a result of what [Stafford County] did,” said Yanez. “We’re entitled to damages for that.”
As for consent requirements from homeowners near proposed cemeteries, Yanez also said the Code of Virginia states that if a resident lives on the same side of the road as a planned cemetery, the cemetery owners must obtain consent from those residents within 250 yards of the cemetery location, but if a state road separates a cemetery from residences, the consent distance is 250 feet.
“If you’re on the other side of the road [from a cemetery], and if the cemetery location is not within 250 feet of the residence, you don’t need their consent,” said Yanez. “AMAA has always contemplated that the cemetery would not be within 250 feet of any of those residences. Their consent wouldn’t be necessary under Virginia law.”
Yanez said the county’s consent form prior to the October repeal indicates a physical house—not the property line—as the starting point for the measurement.
“There’s several cases in Virginia courts that say the same—the residence means home,” said Yanez. “Consent should be measured from the grave to the home. The county’s current interpretation of the law prevents development of a cemetery anywhere on the Garrisonville Road parcel.”
Yanez also said the county’s interpretation of the law is inconsistent with Virginia law, and inconsistent with the county’s prior practice. In the Garrisonville Road cemetery case, Yanez believes the county is trying to force the AMAA to get a consent “they know the AMAA cannot obtain,” she said.
“We think that the county’s prior practice has been grave to residence, not property line to property line. This is simply one more way to block AMAA from building a cemetery,” said Yanez.
Stafford County officials had no comment regarding the case.
The AMAA operates a Muslim cemetery in the 1100 block of Brooke Road, but it is expected to reach capacity next year.
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438
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