Thank you for the Opinion by Supervisor Lawson (July 11 Prince William Times) on the ADAMS mosque and Land-Use provisions in the Rural Crescent. We hope your readers would also like some objective information about this ‘septic vs sewer’ issue at the heart of this ADAMS Application.
The approval of both Victory Crossing and Fireside Churches (and many others that were allowed County approval for sewer connection in the Crescent) is actually a correct precedent. Since St Katherine Drexel Parish and School never requested connection to public sewer, it was consequently never considered by County staff or the Board of County Supervisors and never denied, and cannot therefore be a precedent. As the Board admitted, every church application in the Rural Crescent that requested sewer connection has been approved; it is consequently likely any St Katherine’s request would also have been approved. ADAMS therefore had no reason to believe its application would not be similarly approved, as all these other churches had been. The 8-0 approval of the mosque application and the 5-3 vote approving the public sewer confirms ADAMS’ reasonable expectation of this approval.
As we demonstrated time and again, ADAMS repeatedly sought neighborhood input and made substantial efforts to adapt its designs to accommodate neighbourhood input.
- When neighbours opposed the entry/exit to be from Schaeffer Lane, as the Country initially preferred, ADAMS worked with the County to change its plan and have all access into the site via Vint Hill Rd.
- When concerns arose over the potential for overflow parking, the design was changed to allow more parking spaces on the property to eliminate any potential need for offsite parking.
- When concerns arose on preserving the rural character and “look” for the property, ADAMS ensured the building height would be one story only (plus a very discreet dome well below height standards to preserve that rural character), would keep the maximum number of existing trees and shrubs, and would incorporate berms along the Vint Hill Road frontage to provide additionally screening and the view from any vehicles driving past.
None of these accommodations were required. However, the desire to be a good neighbour far outweighed any inconvenience and cost to ADAMS that might accompany those changes. That same desire then motivated the decision to seek sewer, and the many “extenuating circumstances” of sewer connection decided ADAMS to seek that approval.
In the Planning Commission meeting some months ago, Commissioner Alex Vanegas offered perhaps the definitive argument for allowing sewer. As Chair of the Prince William County Service Authority, which oversees the Service Authority’s comprehensive county-wide water and sewer system serving over 85,000 accounts for a population of over 250,000, Vanegas developed a unique professional expertise on these issues. As he noted, it is not a question of “IF” a septic system will fail, but rather “WHEN” it will fail! Vanegas also made clear that a septic system failure for an institution like ADAMS could be catastrophic for the entire neighborhood, as it would affect the groundwater supply for any neighbours on well water, thereby impacting every residence there.
It is apparently already well-known that the soils in this part of the Rural Crescent and County are not highly conducive to septic systems. ADAMS’ team provided a map from the Prince William County Service Authority that showed properties in the Nokesville area that are connected to sewer. Many properties shown on this map were connected to sewer because the soils were not conducive to septic systems and thus a failure of the septic system occurred. This proves beyond any doubt that septic failure is obviously not an anomaly, but rather a significant issue in the Rural Crescent already.
Moreover, the need for both a regular and reserve septic field on the property would necessitate cutting down many more trees, and reduce the tree save areas on the site. ADAMS’ current plan is over 70% open space with approximately 44% of the site being undisturbed. If septic were required, open space and save areas would be greatly reduced. As our mutual goal is to preserve the rural character of the Crescent, it is a major contradiction to require eliminating substantially more trees from any property.
If this were a private residence for a single family of 5 or even 10 persons, septic should be acceptable. But for an institution that attracts some 200 persons every Friday afternoon, and can connect to existing sewer lines without disrupting any neighbours, the only environmentally safe course is sewer. In fact, the Board in the decision for Victory’s Crossing approval acknowledged that the on-site septic systems are ill-suited for church uses, which have erratic sewage systems uses. To say that allowing sewer connection will destroy the Rural Crescent is countered by the fact that so many properties, particularly institutions, have already been granted sewer, and yet the Rural Crescent still thrives.
ADAMS has already made clear its desire to work with our neighbours and adjust our plans to help meet any reasonable concerns. But this is a two-way street. There is simply no sound reason to oppose the sewer. We therefore urge our neighbours to consider these facts and then help us to together find ways to make this environmentally safe property meet the needs and objectives of us all, without ignoring those facts. Let us work together without fear, and with maximum goodwill, for all PWC residents!
Robert J. Marro, Executive Director, Alliance for an Indivisible America 2020
Co-Chair of Government Relations and Media, All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS)
Original Article by Supervisor Jeanine Lawson in the Prince William Times:
Religious freedom is a constitutional protection that I value for all Americans.
An added layer of this protection was adopted with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. RLUIPA was designed to protect religious institutions from discrimination and substantial burdens on their ability to exercise their religious freedom when seeking land use approvals from local government. RLUIPA also states “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a non-religious assembly or institution.”
So, the question arises when addressing the ADAMS Gainesville mosque application; would a denial of sewer in the rural crescent constitute a substantial burden or create a less than equal application of land use policy? Comparing the ADAMS request to the Victory Crossing and Fireside Church special use permit approvals creates a false analogy, as there where extenuating circumstances that allowed access to sewer connections at those sites. However, St. Katherine Drexel, the Catholic church approved in Haymarket, presents the closest scenario to the ADAMS request and it will be built with a septic system. Neither ADAMS nor St. Katherine Drexel demonstrated that lack of public sewer would create a burden, which would inhibit their ability to worship.
Many have referenced RLUIPA as grounds for adoption of the ADAMS mosque application for fear of a lawsuit. This fear is based on history where religious applications were denied, challenged and subsequent rulings overturned the denial and awarded damages to the institutions. This has not always been the case. In 2016, the United States Fourth Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Prince William County, heard Andon, LLC versus City of Newport News, a case similar to ours where Newport News denied a church their zoning appeal. The court affirmed the municipality’s right to deny a zoning variance based on guidance from Congress that stated “this Act does not provide religious institution with immunity from land use regulation” In the Newport News case, it was determined that the “burdens” sustained by the church were self-imposed, as the applicant was aware of existing zoning restrictions.
From the very beginning, my position on the ADAMS request for a mosque in the rural area has been about land use and protecting the integrity of Prince William County’s comprehensive plan. For Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart to frame granting sewer as one relating to religious freedom is disingenuous. It is not my job to give an advantage to an applicant when others, such as St. Katherine’s, followed our comprehensive plan. Efforts to provide guidance to ADAMS in finding a location with established infrastructure were ignored, thus the “burdens” created in this application were likewise self-imposed.
This process has been contentious and planted seeds of doubt regarding the integrity of our county’s governing body. In addition, false charges of bigotry and Islamophobia have been made. The result? Trust for government, and the sense of community, have been eroded. For Prince William County to be a “community of choice,” much needs to be done to mend these damaged relationships.
Jeanine Lawson represents the Brentsville District on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.