After a more than year-long battle over a proposed Muslim cemetery, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester won a permit Thursday from the town of Dudley.
The proposal to locate the cemetery on old farmland in the town had brought intense opposition from neighbors concerned over drinking water and traffic. Meanwhile, the raw language of some of the small town's residents brought accusations of religious bigotry.
Lawsuits and a civil rights investigation followed, until both sides came to an agreement in December. But a hearing Thursday night was the first and critical test of that agreement.
Dudley Town Administrator Greg Balukonis said the process of getting to Thursday's hearing took a long time — about a year and two months.
"The process was difficult, but in the end the zoning board of appeals did the right thing," he said.
At the hearing it was clear that much had changed since last May, when the zoning board had denied the Islamic Society a permit in that very same room.
What followed the initial denial were several legal moves: a lawsuit filed in state Land Court; an investigation by the civil rights unit of the U.S. attorney’s office; a warning from the state attorney general’s office; and the entry of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as an outside law firm, to join the Islamic Society in a claim that Dudley officials had denied the group's right to practice their religion.
Jay Talerman, the attorney for the Islamic Society, hailed Thursday night's action by the town zoning board granting the permit for the cemetery.
"This is the clearing of the most significant and controversial hurdle right here, and the one that generated the most controversy: the recognition that we're a protected religious use," he said. "This was kind of ground zero for that."
Talerman had argued that idea from the start. And at the end of December the town entered into a legal agreement with the Islamic Society to recognize that the proposed use of the cemetery is for religious purposes and that it is largely exempt from zoning regulations.
Despite some concerns by the Muslim applicants, on Thursday the zoning board followed through on the legal agreement and its obligations by granting the permit for the cemetery.
The cemetery will be 6 acres, with a 10-year moratorium on expansion. However, that may not be necessary since the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester expects to bury no more than 15 people a year.
The neighbors of the cemetery continued their opposition on Thursday night and called on the Muslim applicants to accept a long order of conditions — set by the neighbors — on everything from the location of the graves to parking, traffic control, plantings and underground cisterns for fighting fires.
"They were heard. I mean that’s the purpose of a public hearing, is to give the neighbors an opportunity to be heard," Balukonis said. "It's not dismissed, but the town did what it was obligated to do in granting the permit for the cemetery. We look forward to welcoming the cemetery in town."
Dr. Khalid Khan Sadozai, after a long ordeal, expressed gratitude that the Islamic Society had finally won the right to bury their dead close to home.
"We look forward to work with the town people and have a very loving and cordial atmosphere going forward from here," he said.
The biggest hurdle seems to have been cleared.
This segment aired on March 3, 2017.