Both the Stafford Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors voted 4–3 Thursday night to repeal county cemetery ordinances that prevented the construction of a Muslim cemetery in the 1500 block of Garrisonville Road.
The repeal of the ordinances now puts Stafford back in line with state regulations that prevent new cemetery construction within 100 feet of private drinking wells. Stafford had recently established 656 feet as the required setback distance, but set the distance at 900 feet in 2016, shortly after the All Muslim Association of America purchased the land.
Supervisors Meg Bohmke, Tom Coen and Crystal Vanuch voted against rescinding the larger setback. Vanuch lives across the road from the proposed cemetery.
“I cannot support an ordinance that does not protect the basic human right of clean water,” said Vanuch.
Attorneys for the AMAA allege the campaign to change the cemetery ordinance in 2016 was spearheaded by Vanuch herself, who was chairwoman of the Planning Commission at the time, when a 900-foot setback from private drinking wells was approved. The ordinance change by supervisors prevented the group from establishing its cemetery and prompted a federal lawsuit against the county and its supervisors, which is still being litigated.
The AMAA and Justice Department lawsuit argues the 2016 ordinance was “discriminatory, arbitrary and imposes a substantial and impermissible burden on the exercise of religious freedom in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the U.S. and the Virginia Constitutions, and Virginia’s Dillon Rule.”
In the midst of the lawsuit in August, supervisors again amended the provisions for cemeteries to make the setback 656 feet from private wells, adding a conditional use permit to the application process. The change to the ordinance was the result of a $35,000 study by Environmental Consulting Services, who recommended the 656-foot default distance from potable wells as “a more appropriate, scientifically-defensible setback distance.”
Following Thursday night’s decision, the Muslim Advocates released a statement saying that while the vote to rescind the ordinance change removes a significant hurdle for the AMAA in obtaining its cemetery, the group plans to continue legal proceedings to ensure that a cemetery is approved and the “AMAA is compensated for the unnecessary costs of the county and board’s actions.”
“While we remain vigilant in our efforts to protect AMAA’s religious exercise, we are pleased that the county and its board have taken this important action to repeal an unnecessary and substantial infringement of AMAA’s rights,” said Melanie Westover Yanez, an attorney representing the AMAA.
Mossadaq Chughtai, a board member of the AMAA called Thursday’s vote long overdue.
“All we want to do is help community members bury their dead,” said Chughtai. “We hope that from this day forward, all people, regardless of their faith, will be able to do the same in Stafford County.”
Earlier this month, Supervisor Gary Snellings first introduced the motion to repeal the cemetery provisions. At that time, Snellings said he believed the repeal would prevent future financial burden on county residents as a result of the costly lawsuit.
“I firmly believe that we need to repeal it, mainly because of the cost that we’re incurring as taxpayers,” said Snellings. “I know we’re over $200,000 in costs, and it’s mounting daily.”
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:
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