After months of acrimony and accusations of religious bias, the small town of Dudley has agreed to a deal that is expected to permit a Muslim cemetery on a six-acre plot of land, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester and town officials announced separately on Friday.
The Islamic Society pursued the new cemetery because the Muslim graveyard it uses in Enfield, Conn., is a long, 60-mile drive from Worcester, but Dudley objected. Town officials have insisted their concerns have always been about the size and impact of the project.
“Today is a good day for citizens of all beliefs,” said Dr. Khalid Sadozai, trustee of the Islamic Society, which has been seeking to build a cemetery in Dudley for about a year. “Our right to practice our religion and honor loved ones in accordance with our Islamic faith has been affirmed.
“Area Muslims will now have a dedicated Islamic burial ground in which to bury our dead in Massachusetts,” he said. “And we are also gratified that our agreement with the Town of Dudley comes at a time when the world is celebrating Christmas, a time to love, care, and sacrifice.”
The settlement, approved Thursday evening by the Dudley Board of Selectmen, should result in an initial 6-acre cemetery on 55 acres of former farmland that would provide enough graves for “several generations of families of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester,” said Jay Talerman, a partner with Mead, Talerman & Costa and a lawyer for the Islamic Society. Along with some wetlands, the site also contains about another 6 acres that would be suitable for cemetery plots, but under the deal the Islamic Society agrees not to seek to expand the initial cemetery for at least a decade, he said.
The project remains subject to routine approvals through town boards.
Residents of rural Dudley complained that the graveyard could contaminate wells and increase traffic. Supporters of the cemetery suggested the project faced anti-Muslim bias. The US attorney’s office in Boston had launched an investigation into whether civil rights violations had taken place; the state attorney general’s office has been in discussions with the Islamic Society and the town.
John Davis, special counsel to the town of Dudley, said by telephone on Friday that heated words and the accusations of bias knocked the project off course. “That became the story,” he said. “The real story was something much more boring, much more mundane and that is the town’s review process.” It was important to town leaders, he said, that the project go through a public review.
The controversy brought intense and unwanted media scrutiny to the town.
“I’m pleased that the bogus bigotry claims and political grandstanding are hopefully now behind us,” resident John Briare said by e-mail. “I’m also very pleased that a more reasonable, scaled-down proposal for the cemetery should be forthcoming.”
Under the new settlement, the cemetery project will come back before the Dudley Zoning Board of Appeals, where “we’ve agreed there will be a special permit granted on mutually agreeable conditions,” Davis said. The project will then be reviewed by the Board of Health, and, if plans affect wetlands, by the Conservation Commission, he said.
“There will be no delay” in the government review, he said. “It will be done as soon as possible.”
After the completion of the local process and issuance of the required permits, a pending Islamic Society lawsuit in Land Court will be dismissed, and neither the town nor its insurer will make any settlement payments, according to selectmen.
“Working together, we have developed a mutually acceptable path forward that allows for the open, objective, and fair application of the law to which our community is entitled,” board chairman Jonathan Ruda said in a statement. “We want to stress that the town’s sole interest and motivation has been for all parties to respect the legal and regulatory process and has absolutely nothing to do with the religious affiliation of the applicant.”
Talks over the graveyard had appeared to hit an impasse in October, after the board did not accept what was the latest Islamic Society proposal for the project, the society said at the time.
It seemed the dispute was destined to be settled by the courts. The ACLU of Massachusetts said it was preparing to file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the Islamic Society in US District Court. ACLU cooperating counsel Howard M. Cooper, of Todd & Weld, commended the town in a statement Friday “for agreeing to resolve this matter in a way which recognizes the right of all religious communities to practice their religion. That right is fundamental to our society, and it has never been more important for all of us to insist that it be honored.”
The Board of Selectmen “anticipates issuing an additional public statement on the proposed cemetery in the near future, and looks forward to completion of the public review process early in 2017,” selectmen said.
Talerman said he anticipates the cemetery could open as soon as the late spring or early summer.