It is not uncommon for new development plans in Northern Virginia to raise hackles among residents who want to limit suburban sprawl. But a proposed mosque on a 14-acre plot in a protected zone has sparked heated debate, with allegations of arrogance on one side and of anti-Muslim bias on the other.
The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), which has 11 chapters around Northern Virginia and the District, wants to build a 22,400-square-foot mosque on the site in Nokesville, in Prince William County. About 150 to 200 Muslims from the area who conduct Friday prayers in a rented hotel space in Manassas say they want their own place for services, Sunday school, interfaith gatherings and other events.
Opponents say the proposed 500-person facility is not appropriate in the neighborhood of single-family homes, which lies within an 80,000-acre swath created in 1998 to preserve Prince William’s remaining rural areas from suburbanization.
Known as the Rural Crescent, it serves as a buffer between the county’s more developed eastern side and rural Fauquier County to the west. Most residents are required to use septic tanks, lots for new single-family homes must be at least 10 acres, and the construction of larger facilities, such as religious institutions, requires a special-use permit from the county.
Since buying the site in 2014, ADAMS representatives say they have worked with county officials to address concerns about traffic, lighting and height, and have spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on the plan on top of the $500,000 paid for the land. Their application requests use of the public sewer, which the organization argues is more environmentally sound than a septic tank. Use of a septic tank would probably limit the size of the facility.
Friction has arisen in the past when churches have sought permits for large facilities, with opponents warning they would set a precedent for further development. But in recent years at least two churches have been approved and permitted to connect to the public sewer system. Citing cases around the country where they say mosques have faced more stringent zoning restrictions than other houses of worship, ADAMS says it is being held to a double standard by people who are leery of Muslims.
Opponents of the Nokesville project say they have no problem with Muslims and are concerned only with the integrity of the protected zone and with maintaining a quiet rural lifestyle; many residents keep goats, horses, chickens or cows. A high school was built nearby in 2011, and the county plans to widen a segment of the main road adjacent to the site to alleviate traffic.
The debate boiled over in the fall when ADAMS’s application to construct a 45-foot tall building, along with playing fields and a parking lot for more than 300 cars, went before the county Planning Commission.
Impassioned public comment at a Nov. 2 Planning Commission hearing ran for more than four hours, with mosque supporters invoking Plymouth Rock and the First and Fourteenth Amendments and talking about their deep roots in the county and history of public service.
“What I can say to those who imply that this is not for the residents: We are the residents; we are your neighbors,” said Shaun Ahmad, who said he lives in Gainesville and added that it was not reasonable to have to drive to the organization’s nearest mosque, 40 miles away.
Some asserted religious bias was in play.
“Some of the underlying issue, the opposition, could be because of lack of knowledge or hate or bigotry,” said Rafi Uddin Ahmed, chairman of the civic and public affairs committee of the Muslim Association of Virginia.
“You’re afraid of Muslims?” said Hassan Zahwa of Gainesville. “There’s no reason for that; we have been in this community for years. . . . Turning your head the other way and pretending that we’re not here or denying this application is not going to change that fact.”
Opponents countered that their stance was about fairness and had nothing to do with anti-Muslim sentiment. They blasted ADAMS for making the purchase with the assumption that a sewer connection would be approved.
“The applicant paid Rural Crescent prices for land and now want to be allowed to use it as if it were an approved development area,” said Dennis Hayo, who lives near the site. “That’s a nice increase in investment, but it’s not fair to others who purchased in the development area knowing the rules.”
Noting that the site’s open space and scenic views were one thing that made it attractive to ADAMS, Tammy Spinks, a neighbor of the site, said that if the project is approved, “You will be destroying the very thing they sought out, not only for them but for all of us.”
To Betty Morrell, who lives three properties down from the site, it felt as if the two sides were talking past each other.
“All we were talking about was land use, and they were talking about what nice people they are, what good people they are,” she said. “I think they automatically assume we’re talking about race and religion, and we’re not.” Morrell is a spokeswoman for Friends of Rural Crescent Energized, a group that formed in opposition to a special-use permit for the project.
That meeting ended with a deferred vote. On Dec. 7, the commission voted 6 to 2 to recommend that the Board of County Supervisors approve the project with a septic tank.
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R-Brentsville), whose district includes the proposed site, pointed out that the churches that were granted sewer connections had conditions that posed difficulties in connecting to septic systems.
One site had a major gas pipeline running through the space where a septic system would go; the other was on poor soil that could compromise a septic system. And both already had sewer lines running alongside the properties.
Lawson said ADAMS was “the only religious institution applicant who has not identified a special exception to warrant the request for sewer.”
To Rizwan Jaka, chair of the board of ADAMS, the concern over sewage is a red herring.
He cited increased anti-Islamic sentiment across the country. “With over 30 mosques being prevented from being built based off of anti-Muslim bigotry or implicit bias wrapped in land-use arguments, that gives us some concern,” he said.
In December, the Justice Department sued Culpeper County, alleging discrimination after the county denied a request for a permit to build a mosque there. Asked whether ADAMS would push for a similar action in Prince William, Jaka said, “Obviously we are prepared to advocate for our rights under the law, but we hope and pray that the county and our members will make this a successful situation.”
Scott Christian, a member of the Northern Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said: “The fact that it’s taken them so long and they have had to go through so many hoops” compared with churches “just doesn’t seem right. . . . I just wish there was more sentiment to see this as a positive thing and not just look at it as more traffic.”
Acknowledging that there was less explicit bias in this case than in some places around the nation, Jaka said some members of the public had asked questions in early meetings about the treatment of women in Islam and about national security and terrorism.
“I think it’s very clear that it is more than just a land-use issue,” said Syed Murtaza, a member of the ADAMS Gainesville committee, adding that opposition groups had formed only after ADAMS bought the site.
ADAMS, which is also facing opposition to a proposed facility in Ashburn, has not said whether it will pursue the project at the Nokesville site if the county does not approve the sewer connection. But Murtaza said, “If it can’t accommodate a certain number [of users] I don’t think it will be a financially feasible thing to do.”