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Planning board deadlocks over rezoning for Muslim cemetery

Burlington’s planning and zoning commission reached a rare deadlocked decision this week on a rezoning request that would permit an area mosque to set up a cemetery along Hanford Road.

The commission ultimately voted 3-to-3 to withhold its endorsement for the proposed burial ground, which the Burlington Masjid hopes to establish on 1.3 acres of a 15.5-acre tract that lies at Hanford Road’s juncture with Old Stage Coach Road.

The commission’s members rendered this split verdict on Monday during a regularly-scheduled meeting that took place over the Zoom teleconferencing platform due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus infections.

Prior to its vote, the commission heard a lengthy plea on behalf of the proposed cemetery from Lawson Brown of the Vernon Law Firm, who has represented the Burlington Masjid in its rezoning application to the city.

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Brown, who also doubles as Mebane’s city attorney, recalled that the mosque purchased the cemetery’s proposed site from the heirs of the late Joe Wheeler in order to set up the first Islamic burial ground in Alamance County. Brown went on to explain precisely how this cemetery would differ from others that already exist in the area.

“The burial plots are not for sale; they will be available free of charge to anyone of the Islamic faith,” he told the planning commission. “Muslim funerals do not extend to the grave side…The burial process is about thirty minutes…Burial markers are not allowed and flowers are not allowed [under Islamic custom].”

The Masjid’s attorney later acknowledged that, in keeping with Islamic tradition, bodies would be placed directly into the cemetery’s 200 burial plots without either a coffin or a stone vault to contain them. He added that these customs would make the proposed cemetery a particularly peaceful place of repose – with little or no discernable effect on neighboring property. He nevertheless said that it would be invaluable to the Burlington Masjid, which has been headquartered along South Mebane Street since 2015.

“Followers of Islam may only be buried in a Muslim cemetery,” he went on to elaborate. “Alamance County does not have a Muslim cemetery… and the Burlington Makkah Masjid has had to bury its members in Guilford, Durham or Wake counties.”

 

Pushback from city hall
In spite of Brown’s protestations about the cemetery’s minimal impact, the attorney confessed that the Masjid’s proposal has proven an unusually tough sell with Burlington’s technical review committee (TRC) – a staff-level group that vets all new developments which are proposed in the city.

“The applicant has submitted eight different drafts of its conditional zoning plans…and responded to more than 60 TRC comments,” he recalled. “This is a low impact use, and it’s hard for me to fathom why the TRC process was so arduous.”

Brown went on to concede that he doesn’t believe the technical review committee evaluated this proposal so harshly out of raw prejudice. He suggested that a far more likely motive for this treatment is the committee’s adherence to the city’s land use plan, which recommends some form of industrial development on the cemetery’s proposed site. Brown nevertheless argued that the committee’s faith in the land use plan may be misplaced in this instance.

“The property is woefully unsuited for industrial development, even in combination with neighboring properties,” he told the planning commission. “We think there is more value in this 1.3 acres to be a cemetery than there is for industrial use…For industrial development, the property is a useless table scrap. For the Burlington Majid, it is the answer to an urgent need.”

Brown added that, in order to placate the technical review committee, the Masjid has scaled down its original plans for the cemetery from 320 to 200 graves. It has also agreed to engird the burial ground with an opaque aluminum fence, prevent any spillover traffic or parking along Hanford Road, and request the “voluntary” annexation of the entire tract it has purchased.

Pastoral blessings
Brown went on to present a letter of support for the cemetery from Paul Lininger, the head pastor at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church, which is situated across Hanford Road from the proposed site of the burial ground. In his epistle to the planning commission Lininger stated that his congregation would “rather see a cemetery use permitted” at this location “than any commercial industrial use.”

The Masjid’s request also received the blessing of two other pastors who joined the planning commission’s online conversation about the request.

Pastor Ron Shive of First Presbyterian Church insisted that the cemetery’s potential rejection could be more of a determinant for industrial development than its approval due to the bad publicity it would bring to the city.

“Perception is reality,” he told the planning commission. “It’s going to do exactly the opposite of what the land use plan recommends, and what we want it to do, and that’s to attract new industrial investment.”

Meanwhile, George Silides of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church shed light on the enormous benefits that his own congregation has derived from having its own cemetery.

“The membership knows where it’s going to be laid to rest according to their traditions,” he explained. “I don’t see why we should ever imagine denying the same rights and privileges to the Muslim members of our community.”

Brown also presented the commission with a second letter from a daughter of the late Dr. Mohammad Amjad Bhatti, a prominent member of Burlington Masjid who passed away in December. In her missive to city officials, Bhatti’s daughter recalled her father’s unfulfilled desire to be laid to rest in the new cemetery, which was still mired in the technical review process when he died.

 

Fair notice?
The sanctity of the city’s land use plan was nevertheless the prevailing concern for Burlington’s planning staff. Joey Lea, the city’s zoning and subdivision administrator, acknowledged as much when he shared the staff’s recommendation to reject the Masjid’s request.

The planning commission, for its part, seemed more preoccupied with the notice that neighboring property owners had about the discussion on Monday.

Brown assured the group’s members that he mailed eight notices to adjacent landowners ahead of the commission’s meeting. Lea added that the city’s planning department sent another 13 letters to property owners within 300 feet of the site. He nevertheless conceded that the city didn’t place a sign on the subject property well in advance of the commission’s meeting – a step that it has taken with previous rezoning requests. Lea insisted that the city is no longer able to follow this custom due to new state regulations that require both signs and notification letters precisely 25 days before a request comes up for a hearing before Burlington’s city council.

“By statute,” he added, “we can’t put them up more than 25 days out.”

Even so, a number of the commission’s members were concerned that word of the proposed cemetery may not have reached the dozens of homeowners within Hanford Hills, a subdivision that lies outside the 300-foot radius that the planning department had saturated with its notification letters.

The only neighboring resident who addressed the commission on Monday was Nancy Spears, who merely inquired if the city planned to annex her land in addition to the cemetery’s proposed site.

John Black, the commission’s vice chairman, lamented the absence of more feedback from residents, who he feared may still be in the dark about the Masjid’s proposal.

“Notification is important,” the commission’s vice chairman insisted, “and I don’t think that enough notice has been given for this matter…We would not be doing our job for the city of Burlington until more people are notified.”

Meanwhile, commission member James Kirkpatrick offered a more site-specific objection to the proposed cemetery.

“When I look at rezoning, I ask myself two questions,” he told his colleagues, “is it good for the city of Burlington and does it fit.

“While I think that a Muslim cemetery would be good for the city,” he added, “I don’t believe it, or any cemetery would fit in that location.”

Kirkpatrick went on to make a motion against the cemetery’s endorsement, which received the support of Black and fellow commission member Bill Abplanalp. The same motion was opposed by the commission’s chairman Richard Parker, member Earl Jaggers, and alternate Nancy Rosborough.

The resulting 3-to-3 split was an unfamiliar experience for the members of this appointed advisory board. Even so, Parker saw no recourse other than to kick the request up to Burlington’s city council for its members to make the final decision.

“I think it needs to go to the council as a split vote,” the commission’s chairman asserted, “and let them hash it out.”

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