The Prince William County Planning Commission is delaying a decision on a permit for the construction of a new mosque and community center in Nokesville, following a contentious public hearing that went beyond questions around land use and touched on issues like religious freedom and community inclusiveness.
The commission voted 6-2 Wednesday night to defer a vote on a special use permit for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society to build a 22,400 square foot facility on a roughly 14 acre property at the intersection of Vint Hill Road and Schaeffer Lane. The commission will take up the issue again at its Dec. 7 meeting to decide what to recommend to the county’s Board of Supervisors about the permit.
The Islamic group, commonly known as ADAMS, has been working for the past two years to earn permission to move ahead with the new facility, which would hold up to 500 people and come with 300 parking spaces attached to the property. But because the building would be located within the county’s Rural Crescent, the group’s had to submit several proposals to work through the various traffic and sewer-related issues in the area.
Yet Commissioner Patti McKay of the Brentsville District, where the mosque would be located, had a laundry list of concerns about the facility. Specifically, she worried that the permit didn’t contain a number of “standard conditions” that have governed previous projects. Accordingly, she pushed for more time to give ADAMS a chance to evaluate its proposal with county staff.
“Patience is a virtue in all faiths, and this is part of the process,” Rizwan Jaka, ADAMS’ board chairman, said in an interview. “There were mostly well-intentioned people here, and this happen anywhere you have development colliding with a rural area.”
Indeed, because the mosque would be located near three schools and could require the construction of an extensive septic system, dozens came to Wednesday’s hearing to protest the permit. But dozens of members of ADAMS, which rents worship space around the Washington, D.C. metro area, spoke to urge commissioners to understand the need for a space to congregate and how valuable the building could be for the community.
Stephen Donohue, the county’s planning manager, noted that his staff supports a permit for the project, calling it “consistent” with other development in the area and pointing out that there are “a number of large institutions nearby and they’re all larger than the proposed building.”
However, Donohue added that the county would want to see ADAMS build an on-site septic system as a condition of earning the permit. That was the one area where Jonelle Cameron — an attorney with Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley and Walsh, which represents the Islamic group — disagreed with the county.
She said the group would prefer to hook into the county’s water system, though the commission did not seem inclined to grant that request.
“We want to be good stewards of the land and preserve as much green space as possible, not build drain fields for a septic system,” Cameron said.
That proved to be a sticking point for most commissioners, and they hoped that ADAMS would develop an alternative plan detailing the environmental impact of developing a separate septic system for the mosque.
“We’ll take a look at the soil in the area and really see what that would look like,” Jaka said.
But Donohoe did agree with ADAMS that the project would have a minimum impact on traffic in the area (despite many members of the public’s claims to the contrary), and Cameron noted that ADAMS has already made plans to move the time of its Friday prayer service so as not to conflict with students leaving school at the end of the week. Further, she pointed out that one of the conditions of the permit was that the group would secure the services of county police to direct traffic during popular events.
But McKay remained concerned that ADAMS hadn’t included provisions explicitly prohibiting them from putting up “speakers or amplifying noise,” or stopping them from using the fields on the property at night.
“All churches want to grow,” McKay said. “I’m concerned that it’s very intensive use for a 14-acre property in a residential area. I’m concerned that it could disrupt the area.”
Yet many members of ADAMS and the general public argued that opposition to the mosque hinted at bigotry in the area and would rob Muslims in the county of a chance to express their faith. In the packed board chamber, tensions ran particularly high when one opponent of the permit yelled, “Would one of the Muslims please leave?” as Commission Chair Rene Fry asked him to find a seat.
“We’ve heard a lot of people using code words, like ‘those people’ and ‘them,’ and we all know what that means,” said Harry Wiggins, a county resident and chair of the Prince William Democratic Committee.
Jaka begged the commission for a chance “to be treated like any other church,” and pointed out that many other mosque proposals across the country have been protested “under the guise of land use concerns,” but were largely insincere.
Some commissioners, like Alex Vanegas of the Coles District, wondered, “What are we trying to accomplish here with a delay?” and asked if they could just let county staff alter the plan once they’d voted to send a recommendation to supervisors.
But Commissioner Edgar Holley of the Neabsco District agreed with the chance for more time to review it, considering it would likely be “an action-only item on Dec. 7.”
“I really just feel we need to go over the conditions more closely to ensure the future safety of the area and not set a bad precedent here,” McKay said.