Town votes to ban Muslim development

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. — A decision barring an American Muslim group from holding large national gatherings in the rural town of Walkersville is discriminatory, a lawyer specializing in religious rights cases said yesterday.

The Walkersville Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously Thursday night to deny the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA permission to use farmland there for religious purposes.

Roman P. Storzer, representing the owner of the 224-acre parcel at the center of the dispute, said his client may file a federal lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars local governments from using land-use regulations to discriminate against religious entities.

“The board’s decision is irrational and discriminatory,” Mr. Storzer said

He also said the decision was discriminatory because “this conflict has been defined from day one by a desire to keep a Muslim group out of the area.”

He cited fearful statements made by Walkersville residents shortly after the Ahmadis announced their plan in August. Ralph Whitmore, mayor of the town of 5,600, said in September that “Muslims are a whole different culture from us” and that the Ahmadis’ proposal made people “antsy.” Mr. Whitmore is not a member of the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The town attorney said the hearing was “fair and impartial.”

Ahamadi community spokesman Syed Ahmad said the Silver Spring-based group would wait to read the board’s written decision before commenting. The group’s agreement to buy the farmland from Mr. Storzer’s client, David W. Moxley, is contingent upon zoning approval.

Walkersville Planning and Zoning Administrator Susan Hauver said she didn’t know when the written decision would be issued. She said the board’s decision won’t be official until it has approved the document. The board’s next scheduled meeting is March 6.

The vote ended a public hearing that lasted 11 days over four weeks. Board members expressed concern that the annual, three-day Jalsa Salana festival, involving 5,000 to 10,000 visitors, would overwhelm the town’s roads and its ability to provide emergency services. The visitors would have stayed in tents on the grounds.

The Ahmadis had hoped to establish a small mosque on the site for regular use by about 20 nearby families. They also wanted to build two gymnasiums for use during conventions and for recreation year-round.

Steve Berryman, spokesman for the Citizens for Walkersville, which opposed the request, told the Frederick News-Post he was pleased with the board’s decision. “They took a long time to come to a verdict but they did it with purpose,” he said. They were very professional.”

Many Ahmadiyya Muslims came to the U.S. from Pakistan, where the sect has been outlawed and persecuted for its belief that there was a prophet after Muhammad — Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908.

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