Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Testimony on Muslim center continues in Walkersville

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On Tuesday night, the three members of the Walkersville Zoning Board of Appeals listened as Ahsan Zafar, national president of the Silver Spring-based Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, painted a picture of how his congregation hopes to use the 224-acre Nicodemus farm.

The Muslims entered into a contract last summer to buy the Walkersville farm from its current owner, David W. Moxley.

The appeals board this week is hearing testimony before it decides whether to allow the Muslims to use the farm, which is located on the southeast side of Md. Route 194 in town limits, for annual summer religious retreats for between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

The three-day retreat is called ‘‘Jalsa Salana” and was most recently held at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va. on Labor Day weekend. About 4,600 people came, some from as far away as California.

Appeals board members Dan Thomas, who was elected chairman Tuesday night, Vaughn Zimmerman and Harold Roderuck listened as Zafar told them – and a crowd of about 200 in Walkersville Town Hall – that the retreat center would lie quiet and unobtrusive for much of the year.

A few local Ahmadis – 85 live in the area, Zafar said – would be at the center every Friday afternoon for services. About 200 people would come to the proposed 42,000 square-foot center five to 10 times a year for ‘‘interfaith dialogues” on Sunday afternoons. There would be two summer camps for children annually, and three regional conferences for about 450 people.

But those events would mostly fly under Walkersville’s radar, Zafar and two witnesses for the Ahmadis testified, because the Muslims would be scheduling their events off peak traffic hours and would gather quietly indoors.

But Walkersville residents would certainly notice when the Jalsa Salana is in town. Three gravel entrances to the farm would open up on Crum Road, and at least four traffic control officers would be stationed around the farm to get cars and shuttles carrying the Muslims from Frederick hotels into temporary parking spaces. Food would be cooked outdoors, and with thousands of people socializing, some of the din may carry over, along with dust kicked up by the parking cars.

‘‘There’d be some crowd noise, possibly some cooking smells,” said Daniel T. Anderton, chief planner for Rockville-based Loiederman Soltesz Associates. But the Nicodemus farm would be 62 percent farmable for the rest of the year, and if Walkersville intends to maintain the farm as an agrarian landscape on its southeast border, the retreat center ‘‘makes a lot of sense,” Anderton said.

The hearings continue today, beginning at 7 p.m., at town hall. The Ahmadis and their witnesses are expected to be available for questions from the appeals board and members of the public, in addition to Robert R. McGill, a Walkersville attorney representing Citizens for Walkersville and seven homeowners associations against the proposed retreat center.

Look for more on the hearings in the Thursday edition of The Gazette. Updates about the hearings will continue to be posted throughout the week on Gazette.net.