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Saying they have been treated unfairly, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester says it will take the town of Dudley to court after the Zoning Board of Appeal Thursday night rejected a request to locate a Muslim cemetery on a parcel of old rural farmland.
Since the cemetery was first proposed last January, it has drawn intense and emotional opposition. Neighbors express fear that decomposing corpses will contaminate the water supply. Angry statements by some opponents have triggered accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice.
Talk of a compromise for a scaled down cemetery ended Thursday night when the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) shut the applicants out altogether.
'No One Told Us'
After a series of often contentious public hearings, the applicants expected that their original proposal to use 12.5 acres of a 55-acre parcel for a Muslim cemetery would be approved with conditions or denied on the merits. But they weren’t at all prepared for how they were denied.
"We only listen to people who have title to the property or prospective title," ZBA member John Glynn said, explaining the unanimous vote to reject the request.
And it did not matter that the Islamic Society had a purchase and sales agreement with the owner of the farmland they sought the permit for. According to the ZBA, the Muslim applicants' interest was superseded by the town’s interest because of the special tax status of that farmland. Thus, they had no standing — no status. And they were not eligible to apply for the permit in the first place, though they had applied for it back in January.
"No one told us that," objected the Islamic Society's representative, Amjad Bahnassi.
Why had the board not informed them at the very outset, he asked.
"You should have talked to your lawyer," answered the ZBA and the opponents in the audience.
The town counsel reminded the Islamic Society of the classic warning for anybody purchasing land: Let the buyer beware.
The tone for the meeting that started with the Pledge of Allegiance and played out with the portraits of Washington and Lincoln looking onto the room was set the week before, at the last meeting of the ZBA.
In a candid discussion, when the board was talking about conditions they would set for the approval of a special permit, member Roger Dubois spoke to the audience members who wanted not one burial plot on the site. He expressed his concerns about having the town sued by the Islamic Society.
"We’re trying to get the best deal possible for the town and protection for you people but we cannot, unless Gary comes up with something to flat refuse it. Hey, I would refuse it tomorrow," Dubois said.
“Unless Gary comes up with something” was in reference to town counsel Gary Brackett.
"If he gives us a reason to deny it, I’ll deny it. I'll vote to deny it," Dubois said. "But I’m not going to lead the town into a long lawsuit."
One week later, Gary Brackett, was back, and he had a legal opinion that gave the ZBA their reason.
"Technically, in my opinion, the Islamic Society does not have the proper legal standing at this point," Brackett said Thursday night.
Because the land the Islamic Society had agreed to buy was in a special lower tax classification designed to promote agriculture, the owner is required to notify the town when she is about to sell it. She has not done that. And, argued the town counsel, the town has the right of first refusal to buy the land. Indeed the town had already authorized the selectmen to do exactly that to keep it out of the Islamic Society's hands.
So, attorney Brackett argued, the town’s interest supersedes the applicants, and the Islamic Society has no standing.
Frustration After Months Of Effort
The board made the distinction it had not voted on the merits of the cemetery.
"They have not been denied a special permit for acquiring a cemetery," Glynn said. "They have been denied the ability to seek one because they don’t have standing."
After months of meetings and offers to compromise and scale back the cemetery to meet approval, the applicants and their representative Amjad Bahnassi voiced frustration.
"We believe the process was unfair to us because there are some legal concerns here," Bahnassi said. "We’re going to try to basically secure our legal rights of having a piece of land where we can bury our dead people."
The Islamic Society will now appeal the denial by going to court and that will be one step closer to potentially suing the town of Dudley for damages — the very thing that made some members of the ZBA anxious for a good reason to vote no.
This segment aired on June 10, 2016.
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