The town of Dudley will not seek to buy a contested plot of land where an Islamic group wants to create the state’s largest Muslim cemetery, but the proposal still must clear significant hurdles before it becomes a reality.
The effort by the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to buy 55 acres of former farmland with room for about 16,000 graves has dragged on for months, and thrust the small central-Massachusetts town into the national spotlight over allegations of Islamophobia.
“I would hope we can get the rest of the way,” attorney Jason R. Talerman, who represents the Islamic Society, said Tuesday. “But time will tell. We’ve been at this six months. We’re pleased to make progress. But having seen my clients kicked in the teeth for six months, we’re going to be very careful in how we resolve this.”
Advocates for the cemetery have pointed to anti-Muslim bias as the reason the town has not given the project, first proposed in January, a green light. The Islamic Society has sued the town in state Land Court, and US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office has opened an investigation into whether religious rights have been violated.
But town officials say the Islamic Society was slow to file requisite paperwork, and that they have simply been protecting their own “right of first refusal” to buy the land.
“These people here are good, decent individuals,” said Dudley Town Counsel Gary Brackett. “They have the same concerns in Dudley that people around the state have. And they’ve been portrayed wrongfully.”
On Monday, the town’s Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to waive the right of first refusal. Town Administrator Greg Balukonis said he presented a report before the vote on how Dudley might use the land on Corbin Road if the town bought it. Selectmen concluded that no town department had any use for the land, and that the asking price of nearly $300,000 was too high.
While some have argued that the land should be preserved as a municipal water source, Balukonis found that the idea was abandoned in the early 1990s after radon was discovered during water-quality tests.
Despite Monday’s action, the issues surrounding the cemetery are far from resolved. The Islamic Society argued in its lawsuit that the town never had a right of first refusal in the first place -- and that the Dudley Zoning Board of Appeal’s decision to refuse a special permit application for the cemetery in June based on that right was incorrect.
Attorneys for the town and the Islamic Society will meet in Land Court in Boston next Tuesday, where they may discuss moving the issue back before the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, among other issues.
“Once the litigation is resolved, the town certainly welcomes the applicant back,” Balukonis, the town administrator, said.
Talerman said he is concerned that town officials will try to impose conditions on the cemetery, such as shrinking the proposed acreage.
If the Zoning Board of Appeals grants proponents of the cemetery the special permit they need to proceed, town counsel Brackett said they would still need approval from the Board of Health, and confirm with the Conservation Commission that the size of the cemetery will not impact wetlands.
They may need to get Planning Board site plan approval. Finally, Brackett said, cemetery supporters would need to get a majority vote of approval from Town Meeting.
“All the town can ensure is that there is a fair and open process that takes place, and that’s what the town’s goal will be going forward,” Balukonis said.
Talerman said he is willing to work with the town, but there is a limit to the conditions he is willing to accept on its design.
“Regardless of their motives -- whether they were concerned about the Department of Justice review, or concerned about us suing them, or if they had altruistic motives -- it’s good for them to remove that barrier,” said Talerman of the town’s decision not to attempt to purchase the land. “However, the issue is not resolved.”