Walkersville Denies Zoning Variance to Muslim Community
The Walkersville Board of Zoning Appeals has denied an application by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to build a retreat and worship center on the Nicodemus Farm, citing the adverse traffic impact of an annual retreat that would attract some 10,000 members of the sect to the Walkersville facility. Under normal conditions, the center would play host to about 85-100 regular worshipers.
The current owner of the Nicodemus farm is considering a lawsuit, but more on that later.
I have not seen the official report of the Walkersville Zoning Appeals panel as yet. However, as I had previously noted, what the AMC was asking for was an exception to teh current zoning of the farm (agricultural). By the very definition, exception means some that is outside the normal rules. Thus, the Board was on pretty safe ground simply denying the application. But what will be key is the wording of the report, any mention of the potential religious use would certainly be a problem.
David Moxley the current owner of the farm is considering a lawsuit and his attorney Roman Storzer called
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the board’s decision ‘‘discriminatory,” and said in a press release that the State Highway Administration, which owns Route 194, did not object to the plan.
He said the suit would be a civil rights action in federal court to enforce the religious freedom protections of the federal and Maryland constitutions, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed in 2000 to combat discrimination in zoning cases.
‘‘We believe it was motivated by the hostility of the local population,” he said Friday.
The decision was discriminatory, Storzer said, because town residents and officials expressed no concerns with a similar application by The Banner School, a Frederick private school seeking to relocate to a Walkersville farm on Biggs Ford Road.
The school would have a greater impact on traffic than the Ahmadis’ proposed retreat center, he said, because the school would create increased traffic throughout the school year, while Jalsa Salana would create a ‘‘significant increase” only ‘‘one weekday a year.”
‘‘Yet nobody raised any issue [with the Banner School],” he said.
Storzer also cited the annual summer fire carnival, a weeklong event in Walkersville designed to raise money for the Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company and the Walkersville Volunteer Rescue Company.
‘‘There’s also the issue of the carnival, where you have thousands of people, which is acceptable to the town,” Storzer said.
I was unaware of the Banner School application, but unless the school is planning to have 10,000 students or even 5,000 students (exremely unlikely) then the citation of that case for the proposition that the town doesn’t care about the traffic is strained at best.
The Fire Company’s annual carnival was specifically mentioned during the hearings on the matter. The carnival no doubt attracts signficant traffic, and probably more since the carnival probably wouldn’t have a reliance on buses or large capactiy vehicles for attendees, which is almost guaranteed to be the case with the AMC annual event.
One of the big questions that I think Moxley will have to overcome is whether or not he has standing to sue. His contract to sell the farm was predicated upon getting approval for the zoning variance, so he can’t say that the contract was interfered with by the town. The AMC may have a better case and certainly if the two of them joined forces, they would have a good chance of surviving a challenge to dismiss the case for lack of standing.
While I feel for Moxley, particularly given the history of his attempts to sell the farm, he may just be stuck right now.
In speaking with my wife, who grew up in Walkersville, she noted that many of of the townsfolk take the history of Walkersville seriously and the Nicodemus farm is a part of that history. I don’t know if she is right or not, but when she said that people like Walkersville as it is, I noted that Walkersville has changed in the 13 years that I have known her and is going to continue to change, see for example all the development along route 26 leading in to Walkersville, the construction of a large church, a mini storage facility, a gas station and the impending construction of the Banner school, for the proposition that growth is part of life.
But based on the “history” assertion, if the farm is that important, the town should designate it a historical landmark and compensate Moxley accordingly rather than continually standing in his way to do with his land what he wants.
Still, as I predicted, the ruling by the Zoning Appeals Board is just one step in what is likely to be a years long process of suits, countersuits and hearings.