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MUSLIM GROUP LOOKS TO ‘START A NEW CHAPTER’

Work on Stafford cemetery underway following lengthy legal battle

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After years of delays and a legal battle that ended up costing Stafford County hundreds of thousands of dollars, work has started on a new Muslim cemetery in North Stafford.

The All Muslim Association of America’s second cemetery in the county got back on track just over one year ago, when Stafford County paid a $500,000 settlement to the AMAA, plus another $395,500 in legal fees.

“We have gone through a lot—legal issues and everything—but we want to leave all of that behind and just start a new chapter in our relationship with the county,” said Sikander Javed, president of the AMAA.

Javed said in 2013, leaders of the Fairfax County-based nonprofit that provides low-cost burial and funeral services to serve about 500,000 Muslims living in the greater Washington area were looking ahead. Javed said AMAA leadership saw a need for an additional cemetery to serve its growing membership. Two years later, the group paid $800,000 for 29 acres in the 1500 block of Garrisonville Road that was previously used as a golf driving range.

Members of the AMAA said the new cemetery would help alleviate near-capacity conditions at the AMAA’s original cemetery in the county, at 1112 Brooke Road. That cemetery, which opened in 1996, has more than 3,000 interments.

But about one year after the AMAA purchased the land for its new cemetery in the Rock Hill District, Stafford supervisors revised the county’s cemetery ordinances, blocking the AMAA’s plans. The new rules expanded the distance required between graves and private wells from the state standard of 100 feet to 900 feet.

A resident who learned of AMAA’s plans sent a letter to his supervisor with concerns the proposed cemetery might contaminate privately owned wells. At that time, state code restricted cemeteries within 900 feet of wells that supply public water, but the code did not apply to private wells.

Those concerns made their way to the county’s Planning Commission, which voted 6–0 to recommend adopting a new ordinance banning cemeteries within 900 feet of public drinking sources or private wells. County officials expanded the perimeter even though Stafford legislative affairs officer Anthony Toigo emailed then-Rock Hill District Supervisor Wendy Mauer, informing her that the director of the Rappahannock Area Health District concluded that a 100-foot buffer between a homeowner’s well and the cemetery would pose no risk to public health.

Attorneys for the AMAA alleged the campaign to change the cemetery ordinance in 2016 was spearheaded by Supervisor Crystal Vanuch, who lives across the street from AMAA’s second cemetery and was serving as chairwoman of Stafford’s Planning Commission at the time.

The lawsuit called the county’s decision to revise its cemetery ordinance in 2016 discriminatory and arbitrary, and alleged the county and its supervisors adopted a stricter ordinance than required by the state “to preclude a Muslim association from building a cemetery on land zoned for that purpose.”

“These biases create obstacles for the county and it cost close to $1 million to do this and who’s hurting at the end? The taxpayers,” said John Khan, secretary of the AMAA. “The entire community of Stafford. We pay taxes and we were hurt double time.”

The AMAA said it was unaware of the new ordinance change supervisors’ enacted by a unanimous vote in December 2016 and continued to make payments on the land until it was paid off in April the following year. The AMAA learned of the new ordinance for the first time when members attempted to submit their site plans to county officials.

The lawsuit filed by the AMAA and the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the Stafford supervisors’ decision to create more restrictive rules for new cemeteries was “discriminatory, arbitrary and imposes a substantial and impermissible burden on the exercise of religious freedom.”

Not only did the lawsuit cause a nearly 5-year delay in getting work started on the cemetery, but it also cost the AMAA and its members almost twice as much money as they originally budgeted for construction, labor, materials, fuel and other costs, which have all risen substantially since the coronavirus pandemic. Javed said even the amount of diesel fuel they budgeted for construction vehicles a year ago is $40,000 higher today than originally projected.

“Just look at the cost we had to bear delaying this from 2017,” Javed said. “We were so afraid we might not have a place when (Brooke Road) is filled up. That was the biggest worry for us.”

Javed said the cost to build out the Garrisonville property to cemetery specifications in 2017 would have been about $1.5 million, but today those costs have soared to $3 million. Although Javed said most of the construction and site preparation should be completed by December, other amenities such as landscaping, fencing and lighting will follow soon, well ahead of the first burial at the new facility that’s expected in about one year.

In addition to those costs, Khan said a backlog of burials could occur without the new cemetery opening soon. Khan said when the Brooke Road cemetery first opened over 20 years ago, it averaged one or two burials per week, but today the AMAA facilitates about 25 burials per month.

“We’re actually behind the curve because we wanted to be prepared for the community,” said Khan. “Going forward it’ll be a nice, smooth transition, so right now we’re basically at a bottleneck.”

Khan said burials at the AMAA cemetery are $1,700, well below the typical burial fee in Virginia and elsewhere.

“The entire project is funded by the community,” Khan said.

He also said the AMAA and its members will even cover the entire cost of burial if the family is not able.

“Because of their donations, they have made this organization come to fruition and we want to extend that gratuity back to the community,” Khan said. “Our vision is to provide that for generations to come.”

At the conclusion of the lawsuit last fall, county supervisors voted 4–2 to pay a settlement to AMAA to bring to an end the legal battle. Both Vanuch and Falmouth Supervisor Meg Bohmke voted against the settlement, while Supervisor Tinesha Allen was absent on the day of the vote.

“That showed the original law was sufficient,” Khan said. “This is what’s great about our country. We’re all supposed to take care of each other. According to our forefathers, it is fair and just for everyone.”

Khan said AMAA cemeteries are open to the public during daylight hours and visitors are welcome. To donate or to learn more about the AMAA, visit amaacemetery.org.

James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438

jbaron@freelancestar.com

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