Wednesday, November 30, 2022

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Hearing finally held on rezoning for Muslim cemetery; support voiced by city clergy; vote set for June 1

After months of delays, Burlington’s city council has finally held a public hearing on a zoning request that would allow a local mosque to establish a Muslim burial ground along Hanford Road.

This proposal, which originally came to the council in February, would allow the Burlington Makkah Masjid to develop a cemetery on 1.3-acre slice of a larger, 15.54-acre tract that’s situated across the road from the grounds of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church.

Although the Masjid’s plans have secured a nod from Blessed Sacrament’s pastor as well as several other area ministers, the proposed cemetery didn’t go over as well with the city’s planning staff, who’ve sought to preserve the site for industrial development in keeping with the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

Meanwhile, opposition from neighbors had prompted the Masjid to make successive requests for the council to postpone its hearing on the proposed cemetery so that it could address these concerns outside the council chamber.

- Advertisement -

The council didn’t actually vote on the rezoning request when it got around to the long-deferred hearing during its latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday. Because Tuesday’s meeting took place over the Zoom teleconferencing platform in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the council was obliged under state law to give members of the public at least 24 additional hours to submit written remarks about the proposal. Its members ultimately decided to pick the matter back up at their next scheduled meeting, which is slated to take place on the evening of June 1.

Despite the cliff-hanger quality of this week’s proceedings, the council received plenty of feedback during its hearing on the Masjid’s request. These comments include a reiteration of the planning staff’s steadfast objection to the proposed burial ground given the conflicting recommendation in Burlington’s comprehensive land use plan.

“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

Mike Nunn, Burlington’s planning and transportation director, conveyed the staff’s official position to the council immediately ahead of the hearing on Tuesday.

“The adopted comprehensive land use plan identifies this area for general industrial uses,” Nunn stated. “The conditional industrial rezoning is inconsistent and not compatible with the comprehensive land use plan,” he added. “The request may have a negative impact on the future development of this area…Planning staff does not recommend approval of the rezoning.”

The planning staff’s opposition to this proposal was also stated point blank when the rezoning request went before Burlington’s planning and zoning commission in January. The commission’s members ultimately deadlocked 3-to-3 on whether endorse the proposed cemetery to the council, and the Masjid’s request was consequently passed on to the council without any recommendation from the planning commission.

 

Deals and delays
As the council prepared to take a crack at the proposal in February, the Masjid’s representatives asked the city for additional time to address some concerns that a couple of neighboring residents had raised after the planning board’s meeting. The council went on to postpone its state-mandated hearing on rezoning request three times as the Masjid struggled to allay the misgivings of these neighboring residents.

The council received an update about these negotiations on Tuesday from Lawson Brown, an attorney with the Vernon Law Firm who has represented the Masjid throughout the controversy over the cemetery. Brown told the council that he and his clients had managed to reach an accommodation with homeowners Nancy Spears and Andy Hanford, the latter of whom is a superior court judge in addition to being a long-time resident of Hanford Road.

“In the last few days,” Brown told the council, “we have been able, with three conversations, to come to an agreement with Judge Hanford and Ms. Spears.”

Brown went on to inform the council that he has submitted a record of this agreement to city hall, although Burlington’s city attorney David Huffman admonished the city’s leaders to disregard this private deal in their deliberations since the city isn’t a party to the agreement.

“For such a simple straightforward plan, the [technical review committee] process was arduous and unnecessarily cumbersome…Nevertheless, the applicant made substantial concessions and reductions at every opportunity to minimize the perceived impact of the proposed use on its environs.”

– Lawson Brown, attorney for the mosque trying to establish the cemetery

The Masjid’s attorney went on to reflect on the difficulty that his clients had in securing a stamp of approval for the proposed cemetery from the staff-level technical review committee that vets proposed developments within the city.

“It took six months in the TRC review process,” Brown said. “For such a simple straightforward plan, the TRC process was arduous and unnecessarily cumbersome…Nevertheless, the applicant made substantial concessions and reductions at every opportunity to minimize the perceived impact of the proposed use on its environs.”

Brown went on to spell out the concessions that the Masjid had made in order to make its request more palatable to city staff members. He noted, for instance, that his clients have agreed to have a single access point from Hanford Road for the entire 15.54-acre tract that contains the cemetery’s proposed site. The applicants have also agreed not to allow any spill over traffic or parking along Hanford Road and they’ve pledged to request annexation for the portion of the 15.54-acre tract that lies outside of Burlington’s municipal limits.

Brown acknowledged that the proposed cemetery did, in the end, obtain a nod from the technical review committee. He added, however, that the planning staff has remained

“It is a terrible property for industrial development. The subject property is not good for much of anything but has immense value to the Masjid because the Alamance County Muslim community is in urgent need of a cemetery.”

– Lawson Brown, attorney for the mosque trying to establish the cemetery

obstreperous in its objections, which he insisted are based on an illusory notion that the cemetery’s proposed site could be developed for industrial use.

“It is a terrible property for industrial development,” Brown went on to inform the council. “The subject property is not good for much of anything but has immense value to the Masjid because the Alamance County Muslim community is in urgent need of a cemetery.”

The Masjid’s attorney nevertheless argued that the proposed cemetery wouldn’t hamper any potential industrial project that someone might try to ramrod into this ill-suited space.

“A mere 1.3-acre blip on the map will not disrupt the planned industrial character of the area, and it is still an industrial zoning,” he said, “and the applicant’s reduction of the area to 1.3 acres preserves the balance of the property for any potential future industrial use.”

Interfaith pleas
In addition to the Masjid’s attorney, the council heard from Shaher Sayed, the imam of the Burlington-based mosque, who did his best to convey his congregation’s good intentions on the city’s elected leaders.

“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

“We strive to be better stewards and servants of our community,” he assured the council.

“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?”

During the course of Tuesday’s hearing, Ryan Moffitt, a junior attorney at the Vernon Law Firm, presented the council with a couple of letters from backers of the proposed cemetery.
These missives included one from Thomas Messick, an evangelical minister who vouched for the Masjid’s good intentions and its efforts to integrate itself within the wider community.

“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

Another letter from Father Paul Lininger, the head pastor at Blessed Sacrament, proclaimed his own church’s preference for the proposed cemetery over any industrial project on the same site.

“Having the peaceful calm and scenic landscape of a cemetery versus an industrial warehouse or plant is definitely preferred,” Lininger stated. “A commercial, industrial use would definitely negatively impact the surrounding property values as well as the peaceful residential community environment.”

“The permitting of a graveyard, a simple resting place, should never have taken this long. Do not people of every faith deserve a dignified space to bury their loved ones?”

– raabia Siddiqui, daughter of Dr. Mohammad Amjad Bhatti who had hoped to be buried in the muslim cemetery, but died before its approval could be finalized

The council also heard directly from Raabia Siddiqui, who reflected on what this cemetery would’ve meant to her father, Mohammad Amjad Bhatti, a local physician and an observant Muslim who passed away in December. Siddiqi recalled that her father had hoped to be buried in the proposed cemetery along Hanford Road before his death in the midst of the protracted technical review process.

“He would always wonder why the permitting was taking so long, worried that his time would come before things would be finalized,” she recalled. “It turned out that he was right.

“The permitting of a graveyard, a simple resting place, should never have taken this long,” she added. “Do not people of every faith deserve a dignified space to bury their loved ones?”


See related coverage: “Councilmen defend city staff overseeing Muslim cemetery site zoning issues”: https://alamancenews.com/council-defends-city-staffs-caution-over-proposed-cemetery/

Must Read

Publisher objects to planned meeting between current and newly-elected school board...

A lunch meeting that had been planned for Friday between current and newly-elected Alamance-Burlington school board members was called off following strenuous objections from...