Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Decision on Muslim retreat center in Walkersville expected tonight

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Walkersville’s Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to decide tonight whether to grant or deny a Muslim group permission to build a retreat center in town.

The three volunteer members of the appeals board — Chairman Dan Thomas, Vice Chairman Vaughn Zimmerman and Harold Roderuck — have so far appeared to find more reason to deny the request than grant it.

‘‘They haven’t proved to me why they want to bring it here,” Roderuck said Wednesday.

The Silver Spring-based Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA has asked the appeals board for a special exception to use the 224-acre Nicodemus farm as a place of worship and retreat center.

About 85 Ahmadis would use the proposed 42,000-square-foot structure regularly. The farm, located on the southeast side of Md. Route 194, would also be used for annual three-day summer religious retreats, called Jalsa Salana, which draw nearly 5,000 people, and may eventually draw 10,000.

A decision tonight would cap seven days of public hearings in January, and three days of public deliberation this week. A group of residents, called Citizens for Walkersville, formed last year to oppose the Muslims’ proposed establishment.

The farm’s owner, David W. Moxley, has retained attorneys specializing in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The attorneys have said that the appeals board is bound by the federal statute to not discriminate against the Ahmadis.

The appeals board concluded Wednesday night’s meeting after concluding deliberations on how the Ahmadis’ proposal would affect the town.

Board members discussed 14 zoning factors – A through N – in the town code that deal with how doing something other than farming on town farmland would affect the town. On Wednesday, they discussed factors F through N. They discussed factors A through E on Tuesday, and there were never any apparent differences of opinion.

The board members’ Wednesday discussions are condensed below:

F: Would the proposed use affect the peaceful enjoyment of people in their homes?

‘‘Obviously, it’s going to affect the peaceful enjoyment [neighboring residents] so have now,” Zimmerman said, adding that Jalsa Salana traffic would ‘‘cause extra problems” for Glade Towne subdivision residents.

Roderuck said that dust from cars parking on unpaved temporary spaces during Jalsa Salana would affect residents. Dust kicked up by farm machinery working the farm is ‘‘permissible,” Roderuck said, because residents who moved to the area knew they would have to live with it.

‘‘We can’t compare the two,” he added.

G: How many people reside, work or study in immediate areas?

Zimmerman said schools operating in summer session would be affected by Jalsa Salana traffic, as would subdivisions north of the land on which it would be built.

‘‘I truly believe it’s going to be more than a little impact,” Zimmerman said. ‘‘I feel that this subsection does have adverse effects that are greater [than other farmland in Walkersville].”

H: Are there structures in the vicinity where people are apt to gather in large numbers?

‘‘Everything I just said under subsection G applies to subsection H,” Zimmerman said.

I: What are the traffic conditions?

Zimmerman rejected the traffic report prepared by the Ahmadis. It did not specify the length of time that Jalsa Salana attendees would need to get from a congested Md. Route 194 to parking spaces on the farm, Zimmerman said. Traffic signs would increase the chances for rear-end collisions, he added.

‘‘I just don’t have a lot of faith in that report,” he said.

J: Would cultural and historic landmarks be preserved?

The Nicodemus farm has ‘‘historic value” to Walkersville, Zimmerman said, because John Walker, the town’s namesake, used to live there.

‘‘If we did approve this application, we’d want to put some type of special condition in there,” he said.

K: Would the proposal conserve property values?

The board rejected the Ahmadis’ testimony from a real estate agent that said property values would be conserved.

‘‘I would think if I was going to buy one of those houses [and knew about Jalsa Salana], I think I would be hesitant about that house,” Zimmerman said.

L: Would surrounding houses be affected by odors, dust, gas, smoke, fumes, vibrations, glare and noise?

Cars parking on unpaved temporary spaces would create noise and kick up dust, Zimmerman said, and the Muslims could potentially line portable toilets along Crum Road.

‘‘That’s a possibility,” he said. ‘‘We have to think the worst.”

M: What contribution, if any, would the proposed use make toward the deterioration of areas and neighborhoods?

Jalsa Salana ‘‘would deteriorate the safety of people, because of traffic and that type of thing,” Zimmerman said, adding that the factor does not differentiate between monetary and other types of deterioration.

N: Would the proposed use be in accordance with the town’s comprehensive plan?

The Muslims’ application for the special exception did not spell out specifically enough the frequency, size and duration of gatherings at the proposed retreat center, Zimmerman said.

‘‘There was really no binding numbers,” he said.