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Board denies permit for Islamic cemetery

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By Alex Wimsatt

 SHEPHERDSVILLE – It’s back to the drawing board for those who sought to build an Islamic cemetery in Mount Washington.

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After hearing from local residents who spoke out against the proposed cemetery, members of the Bullitt County Board of Adjustments voted to reject the Louisville Islamic Center’s request for a conditional use permit during a public meeting held in the Bullitt Fiscal Courtroom on Thursday.

The permit, which would have allowed the applicants to build a cemetery on 10 acres of agriculturally zoned land off Hubbards Lane in Mount Washington, was denied 5-1. 

On behalf of the Louisville Islamic Center, Louisville attorney Greg Ehrhard attempted to quell concerns previously expressed by adjoining property owners and others who live near the site. 

Ehrhard assured that the cemetery would not disrupt or alter the character of the neighborhood, explaining that plans called for an 80-foot setback from Hubbards Lane to the six-foot high white vinyl fence planned to envelope the property.   

The attorney added that the applicants offered to dedicate 20 feet of right-of-way for future widening of Hubbards Lane.

Ehrhard said the only improvements to the property would be a narrow drive through the middle of the cemetery, a small open-air pavilion in the center of the property, a garden shed, and a masonry entrance just off Hubbards Lane.

With regard to utilities, Ehrhard said plans included extending waterlines to the property and running electricity along the road through the cemetery for light posts.

“The demands of infrastructure for this use are very minimal,” he said. 

Dr. Shahid Qamar of the Louisville Islamic Center, who has been overseeing most of the burials for the Louisville area’s Islamic community since 2007, said the need for a new cemetery was growing by the day, especially considering the dead must be buried as soon as possible according to Muslim tradition.

Qamar said the proposed cemetery would be used very infrequently; pointing out that the area’s Muslim community was relatively small with around 10,000 in greater Louisville. 

The nearest Islamic cemetery is located in Elizabethtown and while it has taken a decade to fill up, Qamar said it was nearly full.

Qamar said the Elizabethtown cemetery has been visited once or twice a year in that time, adding that fewer than 15 vehicles have been counted at any given burial.

“When you talk about the number of people who participate in the ceremony, we’re not talking about a lot of traffic,” he said. “We understand traffic is a concern. We don’t believe a cemetery will have any adverse affect.”

Further addressing local residents’ concerns regarding what traffic the proposed cemetery might attract, Ehrhard said fewer than 40 burial ceremonies have taken place at the Elizabethtown cemetery over the last 10 years. 

Additionally, Ehrhard said the proposed use for the Hubbards Lane property was in compliance with the comprehensive plan, arguing that a cemetery was well in line with the general requirements for granting a conditional use permit set forth by Bullitt County Planning and Zoning.

He also argued that a cemetery would be much less intrusive to the neighborhood than other uses permitted under the property’s current zoning.

Ehrhard said the property would not look any different than it does now, adding that the Louisville Islamic Center would essentially be preserving the property.

The grade of the property would not be altered in any way, Ehrhard said.

Hubbards Lane resident Ron Boss, who owns property that adjoins the 10-acre tract, presented board members with a petition signed by area residents against the proposed cemetery after he shared concerns about environmental issues he worried a cemetery could pose. 

“To me it is an environmental issue,” he said. “I just don’t want a cemetery next to me.” 

Jason Waddell, who has lived off Hubbards Lane for the past nine years, said he and his family chose the neighborhood because they liked the rural setting. 

Waddell said a cemetery didn’t belong on Hubbards Lane, adding that he worried property values along the street would drop. Plus, he said he just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a cemetery in his neighborhood.

“I don’t want my kids to have to ride by a cemetery on their bikes,” he said. “I don’t care how fancy you make it it’s still a cemetery.” 

Ramona Stout described how narrow Hubbards Lane was and how she had seen very few improvements made to the road in the 40 years she’s lived on the street. 

“You can’t hardly pass with two cars on that road. It is a lane. It is not a road,” she said. 

Pam Burress, who has lived on Hubbards lane for 29 years, said she and her husband felt having a cemetery would increase the drug traffic in the neighborhood. 

“There’s a gang that already comes out to have parties,” she said, adding that she felt a cemetery would only serve as a hangout for criminals.

Hubbards Lane resident Mark Seymour said he moved to Mount Washington from Louisville to raise his kids in a rural setting, not a cosmopolitan area and he didn’t think an Islamic cemetery was the best thing to have across from his young boys. 

  “I don’t believe the ideals we share in our community can exist with Islamic faith,” he said. “I’m scared for my kids’ safety and my wife’s.” 

Edith Franklin said she bought her property on Hubbards Lane nine years ago for privacy and as little traffic as possible.

“I have nothing against your beliefs, but he just stood here and said that it took them 10 years to fill a cemetery,” she said. “Why do they need another one?”

Following Franklin, Twelve Oaks resident Len Harley spoke directly to the applicants from the podium. 

“It seems to me you’re looking for a dumping ground,” he said. “I resent that.”

When chairman Morris Longacre told Harley to address the board, Harley said, “This is just not a good idea all the way around, for the community, for the children or for them.” 

Bob Hill said he hoped the applicants had traveled Hubbards Lane to see how narrow the road was. 

While two lane roads, such as Highway 44 typically measure 22 feet wide, Hill said Hubbards Lane was only 15 feet wide, adding that there was no shoulder along much of the street. 

“I’ve had to pull into peoples’ driveways to avoid being run off the road,” he said. “I have no problem with this as long as they agree to widen the street to 22 feet, I’m there.”

 Twelve Oaks resident Sharon Foley, who lives on Oak Creek Drive behind the proposed cemetery site, expressed her opposition to the Islamic cemetery, stating, “Our country was founded on Christian principals.” 

“My daddy fought in a war to protect our freedoms,” she said. “It would be a direct slap in the face to him and every other veteran to place a cemetery like this in our neighborhood, given the events of the last 12 years.” 

Addressing environmental concerns and questions surrounding Islamic burials, Ehrhard said that in the Muslim tradition the dead are buried in shrouds, without caskets or vaults, but he said the Louisville Islamic Center planned to execute a geological and environmental study before purchasing the property to ensure the applicants adhered to any environmental regulations governing burial practices. 

“They are sensitive to the impact that it may have on the environment,” he said. 

As for why the Louisville Islamic Center was considering the Hubbards Lane property, Ehrhard said the center has been looking for a site for a new cemetery since 2011. 

Ehrhard said the applicants found the topography of the property perfect for a cemetery, and in addition to the property’s close proximity to Louisville, he said the center felt the tract was being offered for a reasonable price. 

The attorney then addressed traffic concerns, again. 

“All I can say is that we don’t expect to generate any more traffic than the road already experiences,” he said. 

With regard to the religion issue, Ehrhard said he understood those who spoke against the proposed cemetery when they said they didn’t want a cemetery in the neighborhood. 

However, were the board of adjustments to reject the applicants’ request for a conditional use permit, Ehrhard said it would be a violation of the U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The attorney’s comment was met with a roar from the audience. 

Board member David Snider asked if the property had been purchased. Ehrhard said no.

Asked if the cemetery would be locked when not in use, Qamar said it would be. 

Board member Donna Etherton asked how deep bodies would be buried in the cemetery. Ehrhard said the plan is to bury six feet, to which many in the audience mimicked, “The plan is.”

Board member Laron Nunn asked if non-Muslims could be buried in the proposed cemetery. Ehrhard said there were no plans to allow any other denominations. 

When Nunn asked if the cemetery would allow indigent burials, or burials for those have no resources, Qamar said yes, adding that it was a common practice of the Islamic community.

Nunn then asked if burial plots would be sold, to which Qamar said it was being considered. 

“The way this is going it’s very objectionable to the neighbors,” said board member Duane Price. “It may fall in line with the comprehensive plan, but it’s not in harmony for sure.”

 Snider, who represents the Mount Washington area on the board, said he was familiar with Hubbards Lane, adding that while he felt everyone deserved the right to worship as they wished, he was concerned about the environmental implications of burying bodies without vaults or caskets. 

Hearing no other comments the board entertained a motion. 

Board member Harlen Compton made a motion to approve the conditional use permit on the grounds that operations in connection with any conditional use would not be more objectionable to nearby properties by reason of noise, fumes, vibration, or other characteristics, then would be the operations of any permitted use not requiring a conditional use permit. 

Wild applause broke out from the audience when the motion failed for lack of a second.

Snider then made a motion to reject the applicants’ request, stating that the proposed use would not be in harmony with the surrounding area.

Etherton seconded the motion. All but Compton voted in favor of the motion.

Speaking on behalf of the Louisville Islamic Center in a later interview, Ozair Shariff said the applicants were disappointed with the board’s decision and the opposition expressed by local residents.

“I think it highlighted our concern for in the future ensuring that communities are aware of the Muslim community, our needs and basically who we are,” he said.

“The reaction we heard from the residents in Bullitt County indicated there was, frankly, a lot of irrational fear and misunderstanding...that, in addition to not receiving the permit, was the greater concern.” 

Shariff said it was obvious, based on what came out during the meeting, that there was a lack of understanding of the Muslim community, what their plans were with regard to the proposed cemetery, and the impact it would have had on the surrounding area. 

And while he said many expressed legitimate concerns, Shariff said some of the residents’ strong reactions to an Islamic presence in their neighborhood could not be ignored.

Shariff said he was concerned with the lack of understanding and the lack of desire for understanding expressed by many, especially those who met representatives of the Louisville Islamic Center with hostility when they tried to reach out to the adjoining property owners to simply explain what their plans were.

“I think that’s unfortunate,” he said. 

Shariff also said he felt several of the residents who voiced opposition to the cemetery were acting based on the hypothetical while many simply chose to ignore the facts and the planning and zoning regulations that supported the applicants’ request for a conditional use permit. 

Though disappointed by the board’s decision, Shariff commended Compton’s motion to approve. 

“I didn’t think it was an easy decision to make, but it was the correct decision based on the standards that were supposed to be applied,” he said.

As the Louisville Islamic Center’s purchase of the property from the Pete L. and Lula Mae Huber Family Trust was contingent on the issuance of a conditional use permit, Shariff said the center’s board of directors have not yet decided what their next step will be.

Should the applicants seek to overturn the board of adjustments’ decision they will have to pursue litigation in Bullitt Circuit Court. 

 Shariff said the Louisville Islamic Center’s board would meet in the next week or so to discuss possible recourse.