In May 2015, after a years-long search, a Muslim nonprofit bought 45 acres off Garrisonville Road in Stafford to bury its dead.
For the All Muslim Association of America, established here in 1989, the land was ideal: clear, flat and green. In fact, it was being used as a driving range.
The property on Garrisonville Road was also zoned in such a way that a cemetery was a by-right use. That meant no public hearings or administrative hoops to maneuver; the organization would have to do little more than submit a site plan to county planning staff.
Only one neighbor near the Garrisonville Road property objected to a cemetery; the AMAA bought her house and spent a year paying off the loan for the land.
It would be AMAA’s second cemetery in the county. The first one had opened on Brooke Road in 1996 and operated quietly for more than two decades.
By April 2017, though, it had run out of room, said AMAA president Aftabjan “John” Khan. The group decided it was time to move forward with the new cemetery. One of the first steps was hiring Stafford-based attorney Clark Leming, who specializes in land-use work.
Leming had news for Khan. Just four months earlier, in December 2016, the Stafford Board of Supervisors had adopted a series of changes to a county cemetery ordinance that until then had not been updated at least since the 1990s.
Among the changes: Cemeteries were, for all intents and purposes, no longer by-right, Leming said. Any new proposal would have to go before the county’s Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, a process that could take months and require multiple public hearings.
It was a hurdle the AMAA had not expected. But the nail in the coffin, so to speak, was a new restriction on cemeteries within 900 feet of a reservoir, a stream that drained into a reservoir or “any private well used as a drinking water supply,” according to the adopted changes that are now likely to be revisited.
The 45-acre parcel on Garrisonville Road was within 900 feet of Smith Lake and Aquia Creek. All the homes nearby use private wells, Leming said.
“That pretty much … eliminated all use of the land,” Khan said during the public comment portion of the Stafford Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Khan, who was there with a dozen other AMAA representatives, told the board he wanted to “discuss what we can do to bring this situation to a discussion.”
How, he wanted to know, had the county come up with a 900-foot setback, which exceeded the authority given to counties by the state? And what could they do about it now?
A background report presented to the Board in December stated only that “recently, questions have been raised about the process to establish a cemetery.”
Local ordinances “are out of compliance with State Code,” the report said.
“Additionally,” it went on, “concerns have been raised with regards to the location of cemeteries relative to drinking water well and a cemetery.”
The Board passed the updates unanimously at its Dec. 13 meeting.
Exactly who raised the concerns mentioned in the background report was not made clear. Board chairman Paul Milde said the issue was brought before supervisors as “a housekeeping item.”
It had been at least 15 years since the county updated its ordinance, Milde said, and it needed to comply with state law.
But the AMAA questions the motivation behind the changes—specifically whether the group was targeted because its members are Muslims.
“We would like to think not,” AMAA director Rafi Ahmed said. “If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it may be a duck. We’re hoping it’s a chicken dressed up like a duck.”
But the timing raises questions, Leming said. The AMAA made no secret about its plans for another cemetery, consulting with the county and contacting nearby residents before it purchased the land.
“This is the first new cemetery to consider opening since 2005,” Leming said. “What they’ve done is prohibitive.”
The goal Tuesday, he said, was for the Board to send the new ordinance back to the Planning Commission for another look. That is likely to happen.
Because of the Board’s bylaws, it could not make a motion on the issue Tuesday night. It is likely to do so at the next supervisors meeting, scheduled for Oct. 3.
“We’re Americans. We pay taxes,” Ahmed said outside board chambers, where a dozen AMAA members gathered after Khan’s remarks to supervisors.
Ahmed remarked on the final lines of the Pledge of Allegiance, recited just minutes earlier at the start of Tuesday’s meeting.
“Liberty and justice for all,” Ahmed said. “We want to make sure we are treated equally.”