Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Long, slow road to a decision

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
After more than 90 minutes of board discussions Tuesday night, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community — Daud Hanif, Imam Shamshad and Hammad Malik — were still listening intently for a decision.
It was apparent, even early in Tuesday’s meeting, that Walkersville’s Zoning Board of Appeals does not favor granting permission to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to build a retreat center on the Nicodemus Farm.

‘‘It looks now like the inclination is probably going to be for a denial,” said Steven R. Berryman, spokesman for Citizens for Walkersville, a group opposed to the retreat center. ‘‘I think they’re really digging for the positive and not finding it.”

But Syed M. Ahmad, project leader for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, on Wednesday remained upbeat on the retreat center’s chances for approval.

‘‘It’s up to them how much they want to talk,” Ahmad said, referring to the structure of this week’s meetings. ‘‘We are hoping for the best.”

The Silver Spring-based group has asked the appeals board for a special exception to use the farm as a place of worship. The Muslims want to build a 42,000 square-foot retreat center on the 224-acre farm, which about 85 local Muslims would use regularly. The farm would also be used for annual three-day religious retreats, called Jalsa Salana, which draw nearly 5,000 people.

The three volunteer members of the zoning board — Chairman Dan Thomas, Vice Chairman Vaughn Zimmerman and Harold Roderuck — started the meeting by deciding that the Muslim group’s Jalsa Salana events are conventions, not conferences.

Conferences are allowed; conventions, Zimmerman said, are something Walkersville’s ‘‘founding fathers” did not write into the town’s zoning ordinances.

The proposed size of the kitchen, bathrooms and temporary parking area in the Muslims’ application demonstrates that the retreat center would be no ordinary ‘‘place of worship,” which is specifically allowed on farmland in the town code, Thomas said. It would be a convention center, he declared Tuesday night, standing to gesture at a sketch. ‘‘I have a little problem with [Jalsa Salana] being referred to as a customary, incidental use,” he said. ‘‘It doesn’t fit that by a long shot.”

The board’s painstaking re-reading of much of the testimony taken during 21 hours of hearings in January stretched the meeting until 10 p.m., Tuesday without conclusion. The meetings are expected to continue Wednesday, after The Gazette’s press time, and possibly into today.

A pattern emerged during the three-hour session: Thomas would re-read evidence submitted in January by the Muslims, a local opposition group and the town’s staff; Zimmerman would venture an opinion, and Thomas and Roderuck would agree with Zimmerman.

They discussed zoning factors A through E, of a list that goes to N, on Tuesday. The discussions are condensed below:

A: What is the precedent set by Maryland court decisions on similar cases?

‘‘There’s hardly any evidence in a lot of them,” Zimmerman said, referring to how much support appeals boards have had to give to defend their decisions.

B: Would the retreat center be orderly growth?

‘‘I really believe the adverse effect would be worse in this location [than in any other farmland in town limits],” Zimmerman said, referring to Jalsa Salana traffic on Md. Route 194.

C: Would the retreat center be an appropriate use of the farm?

Only if the Muslims would put the part of the farm that they have said they intend to keep in farm production into an easement program, Zimmerman said.

‘‘I did not get a commitment to that,” he said.

D: Would the town be able to supply adequate facilities for sewers, water and trash collection?

The Muslims’ proposal to use private wells and a septic tank, when a county sewer line is 200 yards from the farm, ‘‘is grounds to deny this subsection,” Zimmerman said.

E: Would firefighting equipment be available for the proposed building and use?

The Muslims’ proposed traffic management plan for Jalsa Salana ‘‘overlooked” that, Zimmerman said. The traffic plan’s inclusion of temporary traffic control signs ‘‘would probably end up with people looking at signs, and not paying attention to the traffic in front of them,” he said.

Zimmerman also rejected comparisons, in public and written testimony, of Jalsa Salana traffic to annual fire carnival traffic.

‘‘The insinuation that, because we can [handle] our carnival, that we can take care of theirs is so completely ridiculous,” said Zimmerman, who serves as the chairman of Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company’s carnival committee.

The board was expected to deliberate factors F through N on Wednesday, and possibly today, at town hall.