But Stafford is facing allegations of religious discrimination in a federal lawsuit wending its way toward a trial, leading some to question how much diversity and development the county of 153,000 residents welcomes.
The lawsuit, filed in June by the Justice Department and the owner of Virginia’s only Islamic cemetery, claims the county adopted a set of land-use policies that were designed to make it impossible for a second Islamic cemetery to be developed in Stafford while allowing Christian “churchyard cemeteries” to remain under looser regulations.
County officials say the changes were driven by concerns that private drinking wells in that area would be contaminated by an operation that would ultimately accommodate 15,000 burials.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, pits a major provider of sacred burial rites for the region’s nearly 120,000 Muslims against a county that has added 23,000 residents since 2010 and is increasingly beset by concerns related to development, particularly in areas that were once mostly rural.
“We’re trying to make Stafford County a really nice place to live,” said Stafford County Supervisor L. Mark Dudenhefer (R-Garrisonville), lamenting that the lawsuit “is impugning the integrity of our board members.”
The legal battle currently hinges on how a state law requiring neighbors to formally consent to new cemeteries should be interpreted.
But the dispute stretches back to 2015, when the nonprofit All Muslim Association of America purchased 29 acres of land near the Marine Corps Base Quantico, amid a cluster of homes that use small private wells.
Mossadaq Chughtai, a board member of the association, which provides low-cost Muslim burials for families in need, said the demand for such services has dramatically increased as the region’s Muslim population has grown — including a small community in Stafford County.
The group opened Virginia’s sole Islamic cemetery in a different part of Stafford in the early 1990s, originally handling five burials per month, Chughtai said. Now it’s as many as 40 per month, with the seven-acre site expected to run out of room next year, he said.
“That would be a crisis for the community,” Chughtai said.
So the group went in search of another site, finding one on Garrisonville Road — and confirming with the county before they made the $800,000 purchase that the land was zoned for cemetery use.
Initially, the only obstacle was a state code that requires neighbors within 250 yards to give their formal consent before a cemetery can be built.
In cases where a state road is involved, which applies to Garrisonville Road (part of State Route 610), that distance requirement is cut to 250 feet for homeowners on the other side of the street.
The All Muslim Association group obtained consent from the only property owner it believed was affected by that state law, a homeowner next to the site who recently told The Washington Post that she is still okay with the cemetery plan.
But neighbors across Garrisonville Road were against the plan and began expressing concern to county officials about the potential effect on their drinking wells.
The All Muslim Association told county officials that its method for burials poses little to no risk of contaminating local groundwater or nearby streams. In accordance with most Muslim beliefs, the bodies are wrapped in a shroud of plain white cloth, sometimes in wooden caskets, with no embalming fluid used, the group said.
The bodies are then interred inside thermoplastic boxes that are made to last a century without allowing fluids to seep into the ground, according to the group’s lawsuit.
Still, county officials agreed with the neighbors’ concerns and decided to toughen the county policy for new large cemeteries to account for water quality hazards.
In 2016, the county supervisors approved an ordinance prohibiting new cemeteries from being within 900 feet of an existing private well, perennial stream or reservoir, a move that effectively kept the entire Islamic cemetery site from being developed.
Stafford officials said the change was meant to match a portion of the state code for cemeteries that relates to public drinking sources, which also requires a 900-foot setback.
While churchyard cemeteries, which are typically smaller than the proposed Islamic cemetery, and family graveyards were excluded from the ordinance, county officials said they did not consider the All Muslim Association site to be a churchyard cemetery because the group does not intend to have a mosque on site. But All Muslim Association argued that it should be excluded from the ordinance because it is a religious cemetery.
As the dispute continued, the county began considering revising the restriction, despite fierce opposition from the Garrisonville Road neighbors and some county leaders.
During a heated hearing in 2018, then-Supervisor Wendy Maurer, who represented the area, compared the risk posed by the cemetery to the lead water contamination in Flint, Mich., and other cities.
“Seriously, maybe this is why we have so many water contamination issues in the U.S. lately,” Maurer (R-Rock Hill) said, about what she argued were lax water-safety regulations.
After the lawsuit was filed, the county board reduced the setback restriction to 656 feet, based on the results of a county-commissioned soil study that concluded that distance to be safe for potable wells. A state health department assessment considers 100 feet to be a safe distance, though that view is based on a section of Virginia’s code that applies to new wells dug near existing cemeteries.
In October, with the Justice Department and the All Muslim Association readying for a court trial, the county board rescinded the ordinance altogether in a 4-to-3 vote.
But that won’t end the lawsuit, the group’s attorneys say — the ordinance is gone, but there’s still the issue of requiring the consent of neighbors 250 feet away, across the state road.
While the Justice Department and All Muslim Association’s attorneys say the 250-foot distance is meant to be between the cemetery and a neighbor’s actual home, the county interprets it to mean from property line to property line — allowing several neighbors whose land is within that margin to stop the project. That includes Supervisor Crystal Vanuch, who was elected as Maurer’s successor in 2019 and has been involved in the fight against the cemetery since 2015.
The cemetery owner’s attorneys are now arguing for U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to rule against the county’s interpretation and order the county to approve the cemetery plan, while Stafford County says the case should be dismissed.
County spokesman Andrew Spence would not discuss the lawsuit but reiterated that the county’s chief concern is water safety in the area. He also pointed out that a cemetery site plan has yet to be submitted, which the county says proves there has been no discrimination because nothing has been rejected — a claim the group’s attorneys called “disingenuous.”
The lawsuit singles out Vanuch (R-Rock Hill), accusing the supervisor of using her political influence to block the cemetery plan. Vanuch, whose family owns a horse fertilizer farm across from the cemetery site, was appointed to the county planning commission in 2015, after she complained about the cemetery plans, according to the complaint.
On the planning commission, she argued for the 900-foot setback without disclosing that she lived in the area, the complaint says.
The lawsuit also accuses Vanuch of fanning anti-Muslim sentiments by calling attention to the cemetery owner’s religion at a time when communities across the region have fought plans for new mosques.
Vanuch declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Some Stafford officials are growing frustrated by the mounting legal costs, which have climbed to $313,000, with the potential for several hundred thousand dollars more in penalties if the county loses.
“You eventually get to a point where, even if you don’t think you’re really guilty, you can’t afford to keep going forward,” Dudenhefer said.
Glenn Patterson, who lives across from the cemetery site, wants the county to hold its ground.
He called the suggestion that the opposition is based on anti-Muslim sentiments a mischaracterization.
“In no way, shape or form is this about religion,” said Patterson, a retired U.S. Marine staff sergeant who moved to the area from Fairfax County in 2011.
“It’s not really about the cemetery itself,” he said, adding that he would oppose any cemetery at that location if it posed a risk to his well. “All I want is to be able to drink my d— water.”
Patterson — among the 50.5 percent of Stafford voters who voted for President-elect Joe Biden in November — said the county has been frequently miscast as culturally intolerant. Not helping matters, he said, was the enormous Confederate battle flag that until recently flew atop an 80-foot pole near I-95. The flag had fluttered at travelers through Stafford County since 2014, before it was removed in October to make way for a state road widening project.
Though still relatively conservative, the county has become more diverse as families from the D.C. area move there in search of cheaper housing and less traffic.
Chughtai said that, despite the controversy, the All Muslim Association hopes to be a good neighbor.
“Our position is to see beyond that,” he said. “Our bigger goal is to be part of this community and to preserve our right to have religious burials for Muslims.”