At the urging of two residents whose property abuts the AMAA’s new parcel, one of them a member of Stafford’s Planning Commission, local officials rewrote the county zoning rules. The new rules ban cemeteries located within 900 feet, the length of three football fields, of any private homeowner’s well used for drinking water. The state standard — the county previously had no such rules regarding cemeteries and water sources — had required a separation of only 100 feet.
The clearly intended effect of Stafford’s shift was to block the Muslim group’s new cemetery. It has now triggered lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocates representing the Muslim association, who point to civil rights and constitutional violations in Stafford’s actions.
It was telling that the county adopted its new standard without breathing a word to the Muslim landowners who had purchased their 45-acre plot of land with the understanding, affirmed at the time by county officials, that it could be used for a cemetery without any impediment; the zoning rules in effect at the time of purchase allowed a cemetery on that parcel “by right.” No one else in Stafford was immediately affected by the zoning change. The Muslim association found out about it only months later, when it began the process of filing the paperwork to go forward with developing a cemetery on its new land.
Unsurprisingly, county officials insist that public health concerns, not Islamophobia, motivated the land-use change. Yet there is little research to suggest that a 100-foot buffer is inadequate between a cemetery and a private well that provides drinking water — and none to show that is the case on this particular land. And a state health official to whom the county turned said the 100-foot setback was sufficient to ensure public health.
That should have settled the matter, but the county pressed ahead, not only ignoring the state health official’s conclusion but also imposing onerous new procedural requirements for the approval of cemeteries, unique in Virginia. In keeping with state law, the new rules grant an exemption to “churchyards,” meaning cemeteries adjacent to places of worship — but that exemption confers no benefit on Muslims, including the landowners in Stafford, whose faith does not permit burial sites adjacent to mosques.
The county is now considering trimming the 900-foot buffer and contends litigation is premature. But damage has been done; the cemetery has been blocked for several years. And in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where ethnic, religious and cultural diversity have brought economic dynamism, discriminatory treatment of any community is unacceptable — as it would be anywhere in the United States.