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EDITORIAL: Stafford should admit cemetery error

EDITORIAL: Stafford should admit cemetery error

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A FOUR-YEAR-LONG conflict over a proposed Muslim cemetery in Stafford County is now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed against the county by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s time for Stafford supervisors to admit they made a mistake and settle the case before it goes to court.

In 2016, Stafford amended its zoning ordinance to require that cemeteries be 900 feet from private wells and streams, a standard that went well beyond the Virginia Department of Health’s 100-foot buffer. The zoning change would likely not have attracted any attention outside of the county were it not for the fact that it effectively blocked the All Muslim Association of America from developing a cemetery on 29 acres off Garrisonville Road that it had specifically bought for that purpose.

At the time of AMAA’s purchase of the former driving range in 2015, a cemetery was a by-right development under the county’s agricultural zoning rules, so the religious group did not need the county’s approval. AMAA also bought the home of one nearby homeowner and obtained the consent of several others whose property was located within 250 yards of the proposed cemetery. It seemed like a done deal.

However, complicating matters was the fact that Stafford County Planning Commissioner Crystal Vanuch (now a county supervisor) lived right across the street from the project and she and another neighbor objected.

According to the lawsuit filed late last month, then Commissioner Vanuch knew in 2016 “that the 900-feet separation requirements would have an adverse impact on the ability of the All Muslim Association to develop a cemetery on the Garrisonville Property, but she withheld this fact from members of the Board.” DOJ also accused former Supervisor Wendy Mauer of not conveying the professional opinion of a state health official who said that “a separation requirement of 100 feet to a private well was adequate protection for public safety.”

However, by September 18, 2018, “all members of the Board of Supervisors knew that the All Muslim Association owned the Garrisonville Property, intended to use it as a cemetery to serve the Islamic community, and could not do so because of the 900-feet separation requirements.”

Nonetheless, the board voted to retain the new ordinance without any changes—even though it changed the rules after the county bought a 76-acre plot from AMAA, located next to the group’s existing cemetery on Brooke Road, ostensibly to preserve environmentally sensitive land near the 3,800-acre Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve.

Last February, the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals denied AMAA a zoning variance even though sticking with the 900-foot separation requirement meant that none of the Garrisonville Road land could be used as a cemetery.

But the county’s “overly restrictive zoning regulations” violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, according to the DOJ, which accused Stafford of “impeding [AMAA’S] religious practice of providing low-cost burial services to persons of the Islamic faith. The County’s actions constitute a substantial burden on the free exercise of the religion.”

“When the association bought the property, it complied with all the state and local requirements for use as a cemetery,” the lawsuit stated, adding that the 900-foot requirement “has no legitimate health justification, imposes a substantial burden on the association’s religious exercise, and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”

So now Stafford County is attracting national attention—but not the good kind.

If the board wanted a 900-foot buffer, it should have changed the ordinance before AMAA bought the property—or at least grandfathered its project. Using a belated zoning ordinance to block a by-right project because a county official doesn’t like it is an abuse of government power, particularly when it pertains to a First Amendment-protected religious organization.

Instead of wasting scarce tax dollars fighting the federal government, Stafford supervisors should settle this lawsuit as soon as possible—and learn from their mistake.

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