Council members again defend staff’s professionalism in outlining reasons to oppose the rezoning for a cemetery on land designated for future industrial development
Burlington’s city council has given its imprimatur to a Muslim cemetery that an area mosque has sought the city’s permission to develop on a vacant parcel along Hanford Road.
During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the council voted 4-to-1 in favor of this proposed burial ground, which the Burlington Makkah Masjid hopes to establish on the other side of Hanford Road from Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church.
The council rendered this decision some two weeks after the council conducted a public hearing on the Masjid’s proposal, which took place over the Zoom teleconferencing platform in light of lingering concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
In order to follow through with its plans for the cemetery, the Masjid had filed a rezoning request that, in its final iteration, would allow up to 200 burial plots on a 1.3-acre slice of a 15.54-acre tract that’s currently zoned for medium density residential development.
This request, which originally came to the council in February, was repeatedly postponed by the city’s elected leaders as the Masjid’s representatives tried to hammer out an agreement with neighbors who had some initial reservations about the proposed cemetery.
The site’s neighbors eventually dropped their objections in time for the council to hold a state-mandated public hearing about the Masjid’s request on May 18. The comments that this hearing elicited were ultimately quite favorable to the proposal. They included an epistle of endorsement from Blessed Sacrament’s head pastor as well as a
“HAVING THE PEACEFUL CALM AND SCENIC LANDSCAPE OF A CEMETERY VERSUS AN INDUSTRIAL WAREHOUSE OR PLANT IS DEFINITELY PREFERRED. A COMMERCIAL, INDUSTRIAL USE WOULD DEFINITELY NEGATIVELY IMPACT THE SURROUNDING PROPERTY VALUES AS WELL AS THE PEACEFUL RESIDENTIAL COMMUNITY ENVIRONMENT.”
– FATHER PAUL LININGER, BLESSED SACRAMENT CATHOLIC CHURCH at May 18, 2021 public hearing
complimentary homily from his equivalent at First Presbyterian Church along Davis Street.
“Having the peaceful calm and scenic landscape of a cemetery versus an industrial warehouse or plant is definitely preferred,” Blessed Sacrament’s Father Paul Lininger stated. “A commercial, industrial use would definitely negatively impact the surrounding property values as well as the peaceful residential community environment.”
The council also heard a plaintive plea for the cemetery from the Masjid’s imam as well as an exasperated account of its staff level review from the local attorney who has represented the Masjid in this case.
“WE’RE NOT TRYING TO FORCE ANYBODY’S HAND. WE JUST HAVE A NEED, AND WE COME TO THE CITY COUNCIL HOPING TO HAVE YOU HELP US FULFILL THAT NEED…WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO MAKE YOU SAY THIS IS A PROPOSAL I CAN STAND WITH?”
– SHAHER SAYED, IMAN OF THE BURLINGTON MOSQUE during may 18, 2021 public hearing
In the end, the only objections to the proposed cemetery came from the city’s own planning staff, which had consistently opposed the request based on a contrary recommendation in Burlington’s comprehensive land-use plan. Under this plan, which serves as a long-range guide to the city’s growth and development, the cemetery’s proposed site, along with much of the surrounding acreage, is to be set aside for a future industrial project.
The staff’s determination to preserve this area for industrial use prompted the Masjid to offer several concessions that were shared with the council at last month’s hearing. These conciliatory gestures included a reduction in the cemetery’s original site as well as a promise to reserve the balance of the 15-plus-acre tract for industrial development.
“THE ADOPTED COMPREHENSIVE LAND USE PLAN IDENTIFIES THIS AREA FOR GENERAL INDUSTRIAL USES. THE CONDITIONAL INDUSTRIAL REZONING IS INCONSISTENT AND NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE COMPREHENSIVE LAND USE PLAN. THE REQUEST MAY HAVE A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON THE FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OF THIS AREA…PLANNING STAFF DOES NOT RECOMMEND APPROVAL OF THE REZONING.” – MIKE NUNN, BURLINGTON’S PLANNING AND TRANSPORTATION DIRECTOR at May 18, 2021 public hearing
The city’s planning staff persisted in its opposition despite these concessions, which drew some harsh words from the project’s supporters at last month’s hearing. A couple of people even suggested that the request would’ve been handled much differently if the applicant had been of a Christian, and not an Islamic, persuasion.
This insinuation inspired the council to mount a spirited defense of the staff in the immediate aftermath of the hearing. Its members nevertheless delayed their actual vote on the matter to give residents more time to submit written comments as required under the state statute that has allowed the council to hold hearings remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Burlington’s city clerk Beverly Smith revealed that the extended comment period had brought in a single submission, which she said comprised a list of people who’ve promised to back the Masjid’s request.
Meanwhile, the council’s own deliberations continued to focus on the bum rap that Burlington’s staff members have allegedly received from the project’s supporters. The claim of religious bigotry seemed particularly misplaced to councilman Bob Ward, who kicked off the discussion that preceded the council’s favorable decision on Tuesday.
“I have no evidence, nor am I aware, of any animus on the part of city staff,” Ward declared during that evening’s proceedings. “Simply stated, I do not believe, in my opinion, this to be a First Amendment/Constitutional exercise of free religion matter.”
Ward went on to lay out the planning-related considerations that he said are actually at play in this case. The councilman added that, in his view, the Masjid seems to have met all of the criteria that would allow the council to sign off on the proposed burial ground.
“Cemeteries are a very unique use,” Ward went on to explain to his colleagues. “Cemeteries are not used every day, are used only infrequently, and the use is for short periods of time.
“The use of this property as a cemetery,” he added, “is generally compatible with the existing zoning and land uses in the area…[and it] would not have a negative impact on the property’s future assembly and use for industrial development.”
By and large, the rest of the council had little to add to Ward’s explication of the relevant issues. But its members had plenty more to assert about the staff’s handling of the Masjid’s request.
Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes acknowledged that she found it “troubling” that anyone would infer the staff’s review of the cemetery had been influenced by the faith of applicant. “I do think that because of the kinds of conditions that have been put on this,” she added, “it is a reasonable use for the land.”
The mayor pro tem’s sentiments were echoed by councilman Harold Owen, who also defended the professionalism and scrupulousness of Burlington’s staff members. “And I was at times concerned by some of the comments that were made indicating their efforts were excessive in this review process,” he added.
“Their burden is to make decisions based on the policies and plans we’ve adopted,” agreed councilman Jim Butler, who went on to cast the lone vote of opposition to the rezoning request. “I want to go on record saying that I whole heartedly support and defend their willingness to work on these tough items and stay within the policies and parameters that the elected body has set.”
The theme of the staff’s good intentions was all but exhausted by the time that Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis had his turn to expound on the rezoning request. In the end, Baltutis chose, instead, to elaborate on the “unique” nature of cemeteries that Ward had brought up in his own concluding remarks.
“Cemeteries represent…a nearly forever use,” he reminded his colleagues. “I think our goal here is to make a decision that respects community and respects the land use and will be something we can live with in perpetuity.”
With that, Baltutis called for a vote on the cemetery’s approval, which passed 4-to-1 with Butler being the only dissenter.
See coverage of public hearing on the rezoning for Muslim cemetery: https://alamancenews.com/hearing-finally-held-on-rezoning-for-muslim-cemetery-support-voiced-by-city-clergy-vote-set-for-june-1/
See related coverage: “Councilmen defend city staff overseeing Muslim cemetery site zoning issues”: https://alamancenews.com/council-defends-city-staffs-caution-over-proposed-cemetery/