An Islamic cemetery will be allowed in Castle Rock Township after a Dakota County judge ruled that the township's efforts to block it were "arbitrary and capricious."
District Judge David Knutson granted a summary judgment last week that forces the Castle Rock Township board to issue a conditional-use permit for the cemetery, which would be built on 73 acres owned by the Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association.
"Justice was served, I believe," said Hyder Aziz, a cemetery association member. "I was really very pleased with the judge's orders."
Castle Rock Township's zoning rules initially allowed for the cemetery to be built, and the local Planning Commission voted unanimously in June 2014 to recommend that the board approve it. But in August, the board denied the application after raising concerns about lost tax revenue, exclusion of non-Muslims from burial and fears that the property wouldn't be maintained.
Two appeals and an attempt to reapply for the permit were denied. In January 2015, the board approved an ordinance change that barred the cemetery from being built altogether.
All five board members either did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
In a statement, attorney Jessica Schwie said, "The town is mindful of Judge Knutson's order and is in the process of determining what it will do next."
The cemetery association settled on the Castle Rock Township site near Farmington after considering "many, many plots of land," Aziz said. Space at other metro-area Islamic cemeteries is running out, and Aziz estimated this spot could serve the community for at least 200 years.
But the plans seemed to draw an unusual amount of scrutiny from the beginning, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Minnesota. Though the Planning Commission signed off, he said, it instituted an unusual requirement for a fence to be built around the 73-acre property.
"I have an urban planning background, so I knew from the moment that this information came out that this was really an attempt to try to use planning laws to try to deny this group," he said.
The cemetery association filed a discrimination lawsuit against the township in May 2015.
In November, CAIR-MN and other Islamic community leaders asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the board's denial of the application represented discrimination against Muslims. That investigation is continuing, Hussein said.
According to the judge's decision, the township didn't provide evidence regarding the potential lost tax revenue — the only argument to ultimately be considered in court.
While the board claimed that the township would lose $17,000 annually in property taxes for the nonprofit cemetery, Knutson noted that in 2014, less than $1,300 of the property's payable taxes went to the township. The rest went to other taxing entities, including the county, state and school district.
"It is therefore dubious that a decision to deny the [permit] application in this case would be rational and reasonable with regard to a loss of tax base," Knutson wrote.
Hussein welcomed Knutson's decision, but said he would rather have avoided the legal battle. CAIR was also involved in a case in St. Anthony, where the denial of an Islamic worship center ended in a 2014 settlement between the city and the U.S. attorney's office.
"We hoped that after the St. Anthony case … that it would have come to somewhat of an end," Hussein said.
Aziz said he believes that the cemetery will benefit the community and that residents who opposed it will come around.
"It's an important thing for every community to have a place to bury their dead," he said. "I think people are kind enough to understand."