Metro

After bitter fight for approval, Islamic Society abruptly drops plan for cemetery in town of Dudley

03/24/16: Dudley, MA: An old building (right) on the site where the Islamic Society of Worcester wants to build a cemetery, sits across the street from the home of Dudley resident Desiree Moninski (not pictured) on the left. (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis) section:metro topic:26cemeterys1
JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF/FILE
Negotiations over a proposed Muslim cemetery in the town of Dudley have produced a settlement that will permit an initial small cemetery with the right to expand later on this spot.

The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, just a month after approval seemed certain for a Muslim cemetery in the town of Dudley, announced Thursday that the organization no longer wants to pursue the controversial plan and will bury its dead in Worcester instead.

The society said it had been talking with Worcester for months, even as the organization proceeded with the Dudley plan and apparently kept town officials in the dark that other options were on the table.

“This is more fit to our needs and budget,” Amjad Bahnassi, chairman of the society’s Board of Trustees, said of the Worcester option.

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The unexpected decision brings an abrupt end to a contentious, drawn-out process in which Dudley officials and residents were accused of anti-Muslim bigotry, and the Islamic Society faced allegations that the group did not negotiate in good faith.

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The about-face after a rancorous, yearlong process seemed to catch officials in Dudley by surprise.

Selectman Paul Joseph said Thursday that he and other local officials had no idea the society was looking elsewhere. Dudley zoning officials approved the cemetery in March while the Islamic Society continued behind-the-scenes discussions in Worcester to use part of Hope Cemetery there.

“A few months ago, they approached us [in Worcester] and said would you be interested in having a piece,” Bahnassi said. “We said yes, and we started negotiations with them.”

Bahnassi said some logistics are being worked out, but that the society now intends to use the city-owned Hope Cemetery.

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Bill Wallace, chairman of the Hope Cemetery Commission, confirmed the panel has been talking with the Islamic Society and has approved a preliminary agreement.

“We’re working on a master plan which does include appropriate burial space to meet the Islamic community’s rituals and needs,” Wallace said in a brief interview Thursday night.

The plan still would have to be approved by other city officials, Wallace added.

The Islamic Society had previously explored Dudley, in Central Massachusetts, as a more convenient option than its current burial ground in Enfield, Conn., more than 60 miles from Worcester. The project caused an uproar in the largely rural town, which seemed stunned by the prospect of a sprawling Muslim cemetery in its boundaries.

Bahnassi said that the society pushed forward there — despite ongoing talks in another community — partly to gain recognition of its constitutional rights to establish a religious cemetery in the town.

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Throughout the long road to approval, Dudley officials raised several bureaucratic hurdles to a 55-acre cemetery that some neighbors complained might contaminate their well water and bring traffic congestion.

“We had to do this for our citizens, our children, and the next generation,” Bahnassi said of the decision to fight on. “We learned a lot. We learned that we have more to do to make people get to know us.”

Bahnassi said another consideration was financial. Preparing 6 acres for burials, which the agreement allowed for the first decade, would cost $1.5 million, Bahnassi said. Even scaling back the cemetery to 2 acres would cost $600,000, he added.

In Worcester, costs will be incurred only for each burial, Bahnassi said.

The Islamic Society signed a purchase-and-sale agreement for about $300,000 for the Dudley property. But Bahnassi said local officials recently informed the society that the purchase must be completed before final approval, from the Board of Health, could be granted.

Given the convenience and affordability of Worcester, Bahnassi said, the society was not willing to take that risk. However, he thanked Dudley officials for the opportunity to apply for a cemetery.

Joseph said that the long process — which brought added legal expenses and often unflattering attention to Dudley — was “unfortunate.” However, he said he was grateful that the Islamic Society had found a site.

“I said at the very first hearing that everyone has a right to bury their dead,” Joseph said. “I was not opposed to a cemetery of appropriate size. They are good, honest, and very likeable people.”

The process, however, was often rancorous.

The US attorney’s office in Boston, the state attorney general, and the American Civil Liberties Union all scrutinized the stops and starts on the bureaucratic trail that the Islamic Society found itself trying to navigate.

The agreement in March, apparently all but ensuring final approval by the Board of Health, seemed to bring closure. The US attorney’s office said Wednesday that its investigation into possible civil rights violations had been closed.

Jay Talerman, the Islamic Society’s attorney, called his client’s decision “bittersweet” after more than a year of pushing for approval in Dudley.

“I am proud of the members of the [society] for prevailing in their longstanding effort to secure their constitutional rights,” Talerman said. “This was an important and timely issue, and I am gratified that other communities have stepped in to offer their support for my client’s burial needs.”

Globe correspondent Dylan McGuinness contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.