Hearing on Muslim Center Opens In Frederick County

Yesterday, the Board of Zoning Appeals for Walkersville opened their hearing into the requested exception for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to build a retreat center on the Nicodemus farm currently owned by David Moxley, who has been trying to sell the land for the better part of a decade.

The group brought its request to buy the land and obtain an exception to the zoning code before the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday night. It was the first of four meetings scheduled for consecutive days this week.

The board is expected to make a decision on whether to grant the exception, which would allow Ahmadiyya to use agricultural land for other purposes, after the hearing concludes.

Ahmadiyya would like to use buildings already on the land and build others. The land would be host to two prayer rooms, two gymnasiums, two offices, a bathroom and a kitchen.

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“I think it will be hardly noticeable (by residents),” Zafar said. “It will be identical (to what it is now.)”

Ahmadiyya also plans on hosting its annual three-day Jalsa Salana event, which would bring between 5,000 and 10,000 people from across the country to the town of more than 5,000.

Ahmadiyya was given two hours for its presentation, which was led by attorney Justin Hayes. Zafar, along with experts in transportation, land use and civil engineering, testified during the allotted time.

The hearing is a matter of probably unprecendented attention for the three member Board of Zoning Appeals. Forty-five minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin, parking around the Walkersville Town Hall was full and spilling out onto side streets. The hearing was standing room only.

The town of Walkersville, with a population of about 5,000, has become divided on the matter of the center. Some of the support for the AMC to build the center is focused on keeping the land, now zoned from agricultural, from being used for a housing developement–Moxley’s first plan for the land.

The Board of Zoning appeals attempted to deal with the rules of procedure for the hearing last month, setting aside specific time limits for each side to make its presentation. Lawyers then argued for the right to cross-examine experts. But Board Chairman Dan Thomas probably rues the decision to allow cross-examination as the lawyers argued back and forth over who had the right to cross-examine and who did not.

The hearing will continue tonight and probably tomorrow night as well. The Board has not announced when it will release a decision on the zoning exception, but no matter what the decision is, an appeal is all but guaranteed to the Board of County Commissioners and probably the courts. The battle is not over.

The troubling thing is that all three sides of this debate, the AMC, the townspeople who oppose the center and the landowner are now fully invested in the dispute and a settlement seems unlikely. There will be no winners here.

The fundamental problem, as I see it, is a lack of imagination on both sides of the dispute. The homeowners who object say that they object on the grounds that the development will cause a problem with traffic when 5,000 to 10,000 AMC members come to a three day retreat annually. Given the short period of time involved, it seems the height of foolishness to object to an annual conference that will mean hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses over the course of perhaps a week.

Now admittedly, as the traffic is now routed, there will be some pressure on two local roads that are likely to be incapable of handling the influx of traffic as there is really only one approach to the farm. But U.S. Route 15 is a short distance away and there is no reason to believe that some sort of access road from that highway can’t be built by the AMC. It may take some additional funding and land purchases but it seems possible.

I think the center is a reasonable idea and can be a boon to the local economy for a short period of time each year. Will the traffic be a problem, yes, but it is such a short period that I don’t think it is reasonable to object on those grounds. Objecting on religious grounds is silly and smacks too much of fear and bigotry.

So the hearings will continue today and there is no telling what the outcome will be.

Crossposted at Going to the Mat.

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