Battle Continues Over Proposed Muslim Cemetery In Town Of Dudley

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Representing the Islamic Center of Greater Worcester, attorney Jason Talerman (standing) addresses the Dudley Zoning Board in front of a packed room Thursday night. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Representing the Islamic Center of Greater Worcester, attorney Jason Talerman (standing) addresses the Dudley Zoning Board in front of a packed room Thursday night. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A big battle over a proposed Muslim cemetery in the small central Massachusetts town of Dudley carried over into another packed and angry hearing on Thursday night.

To loud applause, the town’s Zoning Board rejected a plan presented by the Islamic Center of Greater Worcester.

Opponents insist they are not prejudiced, but that the cemetery offers no benefit to Dudley. The center, though, says the town can’t deny a permit.

Representatives of the Islamic center are dumbfounded after the board's initial vote to reject the application for a proposed cemetery they wish to build in the town of Dudley. From left are: attorney Jay Talerman, Dr. Khalid Khan Sadozai and Imad Zrein. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Representatives of the Islamic center are dumbfounded after the board’s initial vote to reject the application for a proposed cemetery they wish to build in the town of Dudley. From left are: attorney Jay Talerman, Dr. Khalid Khan Sadozai and Imad Zrein. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

‘They Don’t Live In Dudley’

Looking for a cemetery closer to home than the current burial ground in Enfield, Connecticut, which is running out of space, congregants of two mosques in Worcester have set their sights on old farmland in Dudley.

For the applicants, the Pledge of Allegiance, said before the hearing, might have been the night’s high point. The first speaker declared that the cemetery has no public benefit. And he was the town administrator, Greg Balukonis.

“This project, to the best of my knowledge, provides no tax revenues, jobs or recreational opportunities,” he said.

Cemeteries do provide opportunities to bury the dead. But the many vocal opponents of the cemetery describe the applicants as outsiders.

“I live in Dudley. I pay taxes in Dudley,” said Jamie Gelinas. “They don’t live in Dudley, they’re not bringing anything into Dudley. They’re not going to pay taxes in Dudley. They basically just want to buy a piece of land and utilize it for whatever they want to do.”

What they — the center — proposes to do involves no structures at all, just an access road and burial plots.

The Islamic center’s attorney told the Zoning Board that since the Muslims are a religious group, state law explicitly exempts the proposed cemetery from zoning laws.

“This is a use that’s not only protected under the Dover Amendment, but it’s a use by your own zoning bylaws that’s allowed as a matter of right,” attorney Jason Talerman said.

Fearful of dangers the cemetery might pose to their drinking water, their narrow roads and their small town life, residents heckled and hissed Talerman’s assertion the Dover Amendment dictates that the Muslims cannot be denied a permit.

“The Dover Amendment exists to protect uses that aren’t otherwise favored. That’s why it exists,” the attorney said.

But strong rebuttal came from Dudley’s town counsel, Gary Brackett. He questioned whether the Islamic Society is a nonprofit entity — public records do show that it is so registered. Brackett said the cemetery might be considered a commercial, rather than a religious, use.

And he too quoted state law, chapter and verse: “No land shall be used for burial unless by permission by the town and the Board of Health.”

Dudley residents applaud at the Zoning Board's initial decision to reject the proposed cemetery plan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Dudley residents applaud at the Zoning Board’s initial decision to reject the proposed cemetery plan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Seeking Another Proposal, More Details

While the competing attorneys jousted in the fine points of the law, the all-volunteer Zoning Board heard from frustrated and angry residents.

“And who is going to be the one to protect our rights, and to look out for our rights and our best interests?” asked Lynn Skladzien to loud applause.

The Muslim applicants estimated that around 10 people would be buried in the proposed cemetery every year. But the civil engineer for the project had noted at an earlier hearing that the site could hold 16,000 plots, a number that has fueled speculation and suspicion.

The crowd’s reaction to Selectman Paul Joseph indicated he was channeling many voices when he told the applicants’ attorney: “People have said to me and I want you to know this upfront: ‘I think they’re lying.’”

The prospects for a Muslim cemetery in Dudley would seem to come down to the interpretation of the so-called Dover Amendment.

Susan Craighead, a member of the Framingham Zoning Board and an attorney specializing in zoning issues, watched the proceedings in Dudley on Thursday night. She disapproved of how the meeting was conducted and how the Islamic Society was treated.

“It’s a religious use by a religious organization, and I think it’s disingenuous to claim they aren’t religious or they need to prove it,” Craighead said.

The board voted to continue the hearing next month. The positive news for the Islamic Society is that though the Zoning Board had rejected its initial application for a permit, it’s asked for another with more details.

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