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Stafford's dispute with Muslim organization heats up amid DOJ investigation
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Stafford's dispute with Muslim organization heats up amid DOJ investigation

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Muslim cemetery

Stafford County's longstanding relationship with the All Muslim Association of America predictably soured after county leaders effectively blocked the organization's proposed cemetery.

The Muslim nonprofit lobbed accusations of religious discrimination, leading to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that could turn into a lawsuit against the county. But Stafford once enjoyed a good relationship with the AMAA—maybe too good, according to Supervisor Wendy Maurer.

At a public meeting Tuesday, Maurer said she thinks the AMAA benefited from political favoritism when the county bought a large swath of land from the nonprofit for more than $600,000 in 2017. That 76-acre property on Brooke Road abuts the organization's existing cemetery—which the county approved in 1995—but Planning Director Jeff Harvey said the AMAA determined it would be “cost prohibitive” to expand the cemetery there because of slopes and wetlands.

The county bought the land and an adjacent tract owned by someone else with the stated goals of saving forests and wetlands near Crow's Nest Natural Area Preserve and providing a buffer for a nearby 70-acre heron rookery.

Maurer, whose Rock Hill District includes the proposed cemetery on Garrisonville Road that caused the dispute, said in an interview that she highlighted the purchase to show that Stafford's history with the organization is not one of discrimination.

“The moment you don’t get your way, now all of sudden we're discriminatory," she said, calling the accusation disingenuous. "Honestly, I took great offense to it.”

The county's past dealings with the AMAA will likely have no bearing on the DOJ's investigation of a nearly 2-year-old ordinance that critics say was designed solely to block the proposed Muslim cemetery on 1508 Garrisonville Road. In fact, supervisors' divided vote Tuesday to maintain the ordinance rather than relax it could add fuel to the fire.

Still, Maurer's explosive remarks offered a different perspective on the county's dealings with the AMAA. 

She took particular aim at former Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Milde, suggesting that he orchestrated the sale of AMAA's land as a political favor to the nonprofit's members who donated to or supported his campaign. The organization unsuccessfully tried to market the property to private buyers, Maurer said. 

Milde, who voluntarily stepped down at the end of 2017, strongly denied the allegation, writing in an email that Maurer’s “lame attempt to smear me is intended to distract from her pursuit of a discriminatory policy that is placing the county in legal peril.”  Supervisors unanimously voted in favor of the ordinance in December 2016, but Milde said he was unaware of its effect on the cemetery at the time.

Attorney Clark Leming, who represents the AMAA, said county employees, not Milde, approached the organization about buying the land. AMAA could have expanded its cemetery on a portion of that land had the county not made the offer, he said.

The organization bought its proposed cemetery site on Garrisonville Road for $800,000 in 2015, about 18 months before the county passed its disputed ordinance prohibiting new cemeteries within 900 feet of private wells, reservoirs and streams that drain into reservoirs. The Virginia Department of Health's more relaxed standards say new wells should not be within 100 feet of cemeteries, though the state does require a distance of 900 feet between cemeteries and public water supplies.

Emails show that concerns the Muslim cemetery would contaminate nearby wells influenced the setback, but that issue never came up during public meetings at the time.

Those discussions occurred around the same time the county negotiated the purchase of the AMAA's land.

Supervisors voted unanimously in October 2016 to buy the site for $650,000, about $41,800 more than its assessed value.  In the same vote, they also agreed to pay $175,000 to another landowner for a 46-acre tract near Crow's Nest with a taxable value of $377,000. 

A county spokesman said the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, which owns the nearby heron rookery, took an interest in the property first and negotiated the sale prices before the county got involved. Milde also said the NVCT pitched the idea to the county and that he was not initially part of the discussions.

The county received a $433,000 grant toward the land purchases from the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, an organization Milde belonged to. A $400,000 donation to Stafford's conservation program also helped cover the cost. A stipulation of that donation, made by a developer in exchange for the county's approval of a 75-home subdivision, was that the money be used to preserve land in the Aquia District. A county report said Stafford employees worked with Milde, who represented the Aquia District, to "identify viable properties for land conservation." 

Milde, who has been a proponent of protecting Crow's Nest for years, said at a meeting two years ago that the purchases "didn't cost us anything, really, on a county level."  

Stafford did end up paying half of the $11,259 cost to clean up a dump site on the Muslim nonprofit's property, subtracting the balance from the purchase price. Maurer said the county is supposed to cite landowners for dump sites, not pay to clear them, under an ordinance. And she noted that municipal employees typically avoid working on private property for liability reasons.

“So we didn’t cite them; we didn’t discriminate against them religiously,” Maurer said at the meeting. “Actually, they were given special consideration because we didn’t apply our Stafford County ordinance.”

She implied that Milde played a role in the cleanup, which was coordinated by employees of the Rappahannock Regional Landfill. Milde was a member last year of the Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Management Board, but he said in an email that neither he nor his colleagues on the R-Board authorized or discussed the trash cleanup.

Maurer also claimed that AMAA reps offered to raise money for her campaign in a meeting last year to discuss the proposed cemetery. She said the organization did not explicitly make the offer in exchange for her support of its cemetery, but that the inference concerned her.

In addition, she alleged that AMAA officials told her "Milde got Stafford County to buy our land.” That statement, Maurer said, caused her to look into what she now considers a questionable deal. She said she voted in favor of the purchase because "I was under the assumption that all was well and good—that this wasn’t a special deal."

In a May 2017 email before Maurer's meetup with the Muslim group, Milde offered to join her and described AMAA board member Rafi Ahmed—who requested the meeting—as a "good citizen and supporter of mine."  Online records show no donations from Ahmed to Milde, though Ahmed has attended an annual fundraiser put on by the former supervisor.  Ahmed did not immediately respond to a call from The Free Lance–Star for comment.

Milde did receive a $1,000 donation in 2012 from a Mossadaq Chughtai, who listed his employer as the Pakistani American Leadership Center. He is also the AMAA's president, according to the organization's website. He got another $250 donation that year from Muhammad Tarar, who listed the AMAA as his employer. 

Milde, who will seek the Republican nomination next year for the 28th District House of Delegates seat, said in an email that he's never received a donation from an organization called the AMAA and that he does not ask his donors about their religious affiliations. He called Maurer's claims "false and baseless."

"For the sake of Stafford taxpayers, she needs to reacquaint herself with the U.S. Constitution and current protections for religious institutions in federal law," Milde wrote in an email. 

The AMAA made a conflict-of-interest complaint of its own last year against Planning Commissioner Crystal Vanuch, who lives across the street from the organization's proposed cemetery. Commonwealth's Attorney Eric Olsen found that Vanuch did not have a conflict under state law, though she did recuse herself from the Planning Commission's vote several months ago to recommend keeping the cemetery ordinance.

Vanuch took an active role in proposing the changes and even made a presentation on the topic to the Board of Supervisors nearly two years ago.  During that presentation, she did not mention the proposed Muslim cemetery as being one of the reasons for the new ordinance.

Supervisor Jack Cavalier, who voted Tuesday against retaining the ordinance, said Vanuch's briefing was "totally out of normal order."

"That has rarely, if ever, been done, and I don't think that we were given the briefing that we probably deserved at that time," Cavalier said, "and I don't think we were afforded the opportunity to make a really informed decision." 

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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