By James Ivancic and Jill Palermo Times Staff Writers Jan 18, 2019
The Fauquier County Planning Commission on Thursday, Jan. 17 voted to deny a special exception permit for an Islamic retreat site outside Warrenton.
A planning commission hearing on a permit application for an Islamic retreat site outside Warrenton drew more than 100 people to the Warren Green building Thursday, Jan. 17. The crowd spilled out of the meeting room, into two overflow rooms and into the hallway.
Fauquier County Planning Commissioner Matthew Smith (Cedar Run) made the motion to recommend denial of a permit application for a proposed Islamic retreat site on Meetze Road, citing traffic and other concerns. His fellow commissioners passed the motion unanimously.
Concerns about maintaining Fauquier County’s rural character and questions about whether two-lane Meetze Road can accommodate large events prompted the Fauquier County Planning Commission to vote unanimously Thursday against a request to hold four annual Islamic retreats on farmland outside Warrenton.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is seeking a special-exception permit to hold its Jalsa Salana, or annual convention, and three additional yearly events on seven parcels totaling 515 acres near Meetze and Turkey Run roads.
The group, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, has a contract to purchase the property for the events, the largest of which would be the Jalsa Salana, an Islamic retreat held in July.
The group estimates no more than 5,000 would attend the Jalsa Salana and about 1,000 would attend the other events, also three-day Islamic retreats held between August and October.
The matter was before the planning commission Thursday, Jan. 17, for a public hearing and possible vote. The hearing drew a large crowd. More than 100 people filled the meeting room and spilled into the hallway and two overflow rooms.
The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors will have the final say on the application, if members of the Ahmadiyya Community decide to go forward.
In his motion to recommend the application’s denial, Planning Commissioner Matthew Smith (Cedar Run) said the events would be inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, which aims to preserve agricultural areas and rural character. He also said the retreats would “adversely affect” neighboring property owners because of visual impact, noise, light and traffic.
“The proposed use would generate additional traffic that would have a negative impact on the existing and anticipated traffic on the Meetze Road corridor,” Smith said. “The entrance is also too close to a blind curve, which could be dangerous and lead to accidents.”
A staff report presented at the start of the hearing estimates Meetze Road would see a 50-percent increase in traffic around the time of the Jalsa Salana, resulting in a total of 2,000 trips on the road a day. County staff predicted the other three retreats would generate a 10-percent increase, resulting in 420 daily trips.
The inability of two-lane Meetze Road to handle traffic during the four events was mentioned repeatedly by 36 people who spoke during the public hearing, mostly to express opposition.
But a handful of speakers encouraged the planning commission to support the permit as an opportunity to add diversity to Fauquier County while also preserving the site largely for agricultural use.
The group plans to use between 80 to 100 acres for parking and temporary facilities for the retreats while leaving more than 400 acres of the site in agricultural or forestall use, according to Harris Zafar, a national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who spoke at the start of the hearing.
Scott Christian, of Marshall, said Fauquier is already home to a Sikh worship center and Buddhist communities.
“I think it would be an important moral statement for our county to embrace its first Muslim faith community,” Christian said. “Our future depends on all the strength diversity brings, and this gathering place would show prospective residents … that we welcome all.”
Many others, however, said that while they are impressed by the intentions of the group as expressed by Zafar, the main thoroughfare serving the site – Meetze Road – is too small and curvy to safely accommodate large events.
Eric Brewer, who lives on property near the site, said the Ahmadiyya group “would be wonderful neighbors under normal circumstances.”
But he said the staff report left unanswered questions and said the traffic and extra activity “would forever change the nature of our community.”
“This organization seems like they have a wonderful and peaceful message, and I think if they find a location that better fits their size and needs, even if it’s in this county, I think it would be great,” added Katherine Fletcher, a resident of Creekside Crossing. “But not on Meetze Road.”
Lee: ‘A good thing in the wrong location’
Planning Commissioner Adrienne Garreau (Scott District) acknowledged the “really profound issues” speakers expressed about a retreat site situated “on a road we all realize is really not very safe.”
Still, she said she agreed with those who expressed support for helping the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community work with neighbors to find solutions to such challenges.
“I do think there are issues that could be resolved,” Garreau said. “I also take very seriously that some folks have said if we really want this in our community, there’s a way of getting there. I think we do want this in our community, I think we can get there, and I would agree that this is perhaps the wrong place.”
Garreau was also critical of the Ahmadiyya group for not doing more community outreach before the public hearing. She said she initially sought to delay the vote but then came to the conclusion more time would not change the residents’ concerns.
Planning Commissioner Bob Lee, of the Marshall District, said he believed the Ahmadiyya group to be “well-intentioned” and he suggested they rent out Great Meadows for their events while they look for a permanent site better suited to handle the extra the traffic.
“Several speakers said this is the right thing in the wrong location,” Lee said. “And I’ve listened to all the comments and I believe it is potentially a good thing in the wrong location.”
Group ‘taken aback’ by the vote
Zafar told the commissioners before the vote the group wants to buy a permanent retreat site to avoid the high cost of renting a venue each year. For the last several years, their annual conventions have been held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.
They are looking for a site in Northern Virginia to better serve growing Ahmadiyya communities in Chantilly and Manassas, Zafar said after the vote.
Rafiq Sayed, a volunteer who handles property matters for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, said he was “taken aback” by the commission’s decision.
He said he was surprised the county had not already addressed the shortcomings of Meetze Road and wondered why the retreat site ”would break the camel’s back” in terms of the road’s capacity.
Zafar said he and the other volunteers would now regroup to consider their next steps. Ultimately, he said, they want to find a site where they are “welcome.”
“We are a spiritual group. We firmly believe if this is happening, it must not be God’s will,” he said. “I wish we would have had an opportunity to address [the commissioners‘] concerns.”
Planning Commission Chairman John Meadows (Lee), led the public hearing and warned speakers the matter was “strictly a land-use decision” and that comments about religion or the Muslim community would not be tolerated.
Most of the speakers adhered to his guidelines. Only one person was asked to leave the podium when she questioned the motives of some in the Ahmadiyya community.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org