A controversial plan to locate a Muslim cemetery on abandoned farmland in the small town of Dudley has cleared its last major obstacle.
The Zoning Board of Appeals approved the cemetery Thursday after more than a year of stormy public hearings, cross-allegations of bigotry and grandstanding, and scrutiny by state and federal attorneys.
“It has been a long time, but I think reasonable people always come back with reasonable solutions,” said Amjad Bahnassi, chairman of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, which requested the cemetery.
Burials will be restricted for the first 10 years to six acres of a former farm off a narrow, twisting road. A special permit approved by the zoning board also requires buffer zones of vegetation between the burying ground and abutters.
“We’re gratified that the town has stepped up,” said Jay Talerman, an attorney who represents the Islamic Society. “It took a bit longer than a cemetery with no buildings should take.”
The Islamic Society has sought the 55-acre property as a more convenient option than its current cemetery in Enfield, Conn., more than 60 miles from Worcester. The request caused an uproar in the largely rural town, which seemed stunned by the prospect of a sprawling Muslim cemetery there.
Talerman and Islamic Society leaders said the heated reaction appeared rooted in anti-Muslim bias and fear. Residents who live near the site, however, said their concerns centered on possible well contamination and traffic congestion.
The result was a sputtering, complicated series of moves and counter-moves by the Islamic Society and town officials, which led to increasing acrimony and mutual accusations of bad faith.
The Dudley town counsel, Gary Brackett, said Friday that the issue should have been resolved months ago.
“From the very beginning, the review of this had nothing to do with religious orientation. The issue was the size of the cemetery and the impact upon the neighborhood,” Brackett said. “It’s unfortunate it’s taken this long.”
The cemetery still must be approved by the Board of Health, whose endorsement is expected. Talerman said the cemetery is likely to open in 2018.
As recently as October, the matter appeared to be deadlocked and headed for the courts. However, an agreement was reached in December that included conditions approved this week by the zoning board.E-mail Brian MacQuarrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.