Friday, January 04, 2008

Islamic Community Wants to Build A Retreat Center In Frederick County

One of the biggest goings on in Frederick County is that Walkersville, MD Board of Zoning Appeals will be holding a multi-day hearing to consider an exception to the zoning of a local farm to be used as a retreat center for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

The strength of the opposition surprised many people, including the farm's current owner, the AMC leadership and perhaps even the citizens in Walkersville themselves. The owner of the farm has spent a decade trying to sell his land usually for the purpose of building residential areas:
Town commissioners, on Dec. 11, 1996, voted against Moxley’s request to rezone the land from agriculture to residential, citing the character of the area surrounding the farm. Officials were also concerned about resulting traffic, school crowding, water and sewer issues.

A three-year legal battle between the developer and the town ensued, in which Moxley claimed commissioners acted capriciously and unfairly in denying his request to rezone. Moxley and his partners dropped the lawsuit against the town on Feb. 24, 1999, and canceled a rezoning hearing scheduled for the following day in Frederick County Circuit Court.

In 2003 Moxley presented a concept to build 430 single-family homes and 170 townhouses during the public input period of the town’s comprehensive plan update. That concept also failed.

Moxley sued the town in the late 1990s, he said, in order to avoid losing millions. Moxley said both of his parents were ill at the time, and that his family feared losing millions again through the application of the estate tax. "I didn’t want to do that, but we were stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The AMC's offer came through and now the fight is on. The AMC is not ready to give up and the local Walkersville residential groups are gearing up for a fight as well.

While the local residents have been cautioned by their lawyer not to mention religion and stick solely to the zoning regulations and objections based on those regulation, the fact is that the religious overtones are running this battle. Had the Southern Baptist Convention or the Episcopalian Church or any other Christian denomination had posited building a retreat, I believe that the opposition would not be so fierce.

Obstensibly, the resident groups objections are based upon traffic and quality of life concerns, but their spokesman doesn't really talk about those matters, but rather speaks with more than a tinge of disdain for the AMC:
"They want the highest piece of ground in the middle of Walkersville to do that with,” [Spokesman Steven] Berryman said, gesturing to a picture of Muslim men, standing around tents, on his computer screen. "That would seriously impact the normal day to day lives and operations of the citizens of Walkersville.”

The problem with the proposed retreat center is its size, Berryman said. He believes that the Muslims would clog Md. Route 194 with hundreds of buses, max out local hotels and spend two months shipping in goods for the annual summer retreat.
The immediate problem is the Berryman is being far too short sighted. The AMC has indicated that they currently plan an annual three day retreat. Berryman and the residents state that
The problem with the proposed retreat center is its size, Berryman said. He believes that the Muslims would clog Md. Route 194 with hundreds of buses, max out local hotels and spend two months shipping in goods for the annual summer retreat.

The Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company No. 11 fundraiser carnival, which attracts thousands of visitors annually, is not a comparable problem because visitors to the carnival do not spend the night, Berryman said.
so economic growth is bad, despite the fact that the area around Walkersville is already growing rapidly. It would seem to me that the money this annual retreat would bring in is a good thing for the community. It is not traffic congestion that is the problem, or even that hotels will be booked for three or four days (why precisely is that a bad thing?). The issue is that Walkersville residents or at least some of them don't want "those dirty Muslims" around. It is a sad commentary on our times and a sad commentary about the close-mindedness of some of the residents of a town my wife was raised in.

Assuming the AMC can address the Zoning Board of Appeals regulatory issues this project should go forward. Berryman has not even been subtle in part of his objection:
Berryman suggests the retreat center "could provide cover for others, perhaps unrelated but with evil will, to operate in an undetectable fashion around our schools.”
Berryman's objection is based on bigotry and fear, and both are unfounded. For a country founded on religious tolerance, Walkersville certainly seem devoid of tolerance. As I said before, had this been any other religious sect or denomination, the objections would not be as high profile as they are and a likely resolution would have been found.

I am not absolving AMC of any wrongdoing here either. They have been rather bullish on the matter and I think it is fair to say that they would admit to. But at the same time, it is not an unreasonable deal and most of the land in question would remain undisturbed.

In a time when tensions between Muslim Americans and the rest of the country are so high, when do we need to antagonize people over this issue. The problem is that both sides are so invested in this matter that it is impossible for the matter to end here. A court is going to have to make a decision at some point and then absolutely no one is going to be happy.

The Zoning Board of Appeals will start their hearings on Tuesday, the procedures are here. The meeting is open to the public and public comment will be permitted pursuant to the rules. The capacity of the meeting room is another question and I would not be surprised to see it moved somewhere else, like the high school cafeteria or auditorium just down the road.

1 comment:

Steve Berryman said...

Hi Matt,
Thank you for your insightful commentary; we could use more involved individuals willing to dig for details.
I assure you that folks have invested in the "due dillegence" in this matter, and have hired independent and certified experts to reinforce this.
Hope to see you at the hearings.