Farmersville Council Approves Islamic Cemetery Plan
After a divisive and difficult public conversation that lasted more than three years, the City of Farmersville has granted approval to a proposal for an Islamic cemetery just west of the city limits.
The Farmersville city council unanimously passed a motion to allow the Plano-based Islamic Association of Collin County to begin development of a roughly 34-acre property located along U.S. Highway 380, near County Road 557. The vote took place at a special meeting of the council on Thursday evening.
"The agreement's been signed," Farmersville mayor Randy Rice said. "It allows us some closure. It allows us to move on. It allows the IACC to move on."
The land is located within the City of Farmersville’s extraterritorial zoning jurisdiction. The proposed facility would include about 11,000 possible burial sites, a pavilion, restrooms and a small building for maintenance equipment.
The city’s approval marks an about-face on the topic that seems to have been inspired in part by an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Islamic Association of Collin County first submitted the plan for a cemetery in 2015. The city’s zoning commission granted initial approval to the IACC, but that move was followed by contentious city council meetings and an emotional town hall meeting on the topic which was attended by about 350 people, many of whom opposed the cemetery.
The city council never approved the plan, and it expired in 2016. Another proposal for essentially the same project was again approved by the zoning commission in June 2017, but was rejected by the city council in July 2017. The Islamic Association of Collin County and the city council enetered into negotiations after the 2017 rejection.
The council cited drainage concerns at the site as the reason for the plan’s rejection, but federal officials suspected religious discrimination as the real motivation. In September 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the city that an investigation of the matter was underway and that a lawsuit was a possible outcome.
The federal law relevant to the matter is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was passed unanimously by voice vote in both the U.S. Senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives and in 2000. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.
In August 2018, the U.S. Dept. of Justice notified the City of Farmersville that the U.S. Office of the Attorney General had approved a lawsuit against the city due to evidence that local officials had violated the federal law prohibiting religious discrimination in matters of land use.
The city responded by entering into a tolling agreement with the Department of Justice. Such agreements typically buy more time for a potential defendant to resolve a dispute with a potential plaintiff so that both parties may avoid a lawsuit.
Less than one month later, this week's vote approving the cemetery proposal brought the multi-year struggle to an end.
"Obviously, the Department of Justice has a very big hammer," Rice said. "It helped move what we already had going forward more quickly. Both the IACC and Farmersville were involved in negotiations prior to the Department of Justice getting involved. It's just that it was moving slowly. And when they got invloved, of course, things sped up because there were particular timelines invloved. "
- May 28, 2015: City of Farmersville Planning and Zoning Commission approves original concept plan.
- Aug. 4, 2015: City of Farmersville Town Hall meeting about cemetery proposal.
- May 28, 2016: Original concept plan expires at end of one-year period.
- Feb. 27, 2017: Second concept plan is approved by Planning and Zoning Commission.
- June 19, 2017: Planning and Zoning Commission approves preliminary plat.
- July 11, 2017: Farmersville City Council rejects preliminary plat.
- July 25, 2017: City Council votes to enter negotiations with Islamic Association of Collin County.
- Aug. 2, 2017: City Council enters into negotiations with Islamic Association of Collin County.
- Sept. 20, 2017: U.S. Department of Justice notifies City of Farmersville that the city’s actions regarding the proposal could constitute a violation of federal law prohibiting discrimination based on religion in land use matters.
- Aug. 14, 2018: Farmersville City Attorney receives notice from U.S. Department of Justice regarding pending lawsuit against City of Farmersville for alleged violation of the 2000 Religious land use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
- Aug. 20, 2018: City Council approves entering into a tolling agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve the issue.
- Aug. 21, 2018: City Attorney notifies U.S. Dept. of Justice of City of Farmerville’s willingness to enter into a tolling agreement to resolve the problems associated with the city’s response to the cemetery proposal.