COVINGTON — Local reaction to a proposal by a Doraville nonprofit to develop a mosque and cemetery in Newton County was mostly critical Wednesday as news of the plan spread.
Although the 135-acre tract on Ga. Highway 162 where the mosque and related facilities are planned was purchased about a year ago by Al Maad Al Islami Inc., the news of the planned development caught many by surprise. Postings on social media and the Citizen website were largely in opposition to the development.
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas, in whose district the development is planned, said he had been receiving phone calls and emails since the Citizen posted a story about the project on its website Tuesday evening.
“I’ve got some unhappy campers out there,” Douglas said Wednesday. “All the emails I’ve gotten this morning have been negative for various and sundry reasons.”
Preliminary conceptual plans for the project show 5 acres set aside for the mosque and another 10.5 acres allocated for the cemetery and a burial preparation accessory facility. The plan includes an additional 15 acres for future cemetery expansion, 28 acres for a future school operated by the church, 21 acres for residential uses, and 4.8 acres for open space. The property is located at the northwest intersection of Ga. Highway 162 and County Line Road.
Douglas said his biggest concern was the fact that commissioners had not been notified in advance that a potentially controversial project was planned.
“I had no idea at all that this was in the works,” Douglas said. “I talked to (County Attorney) Megan Martin this morning and she says that — as I understand it — churches may be exempt from having to be approved by us for zoning.”
In fact, Newton County Zoning Administrator Judy Johnson said Tuesday that churches are permitted uses in all zoning districts in the county, as long as the developer has an approved administrative use permit. A cemetery is also a permitted use on the property.
Douglas said that ordinance should be changed for future developments.
Chairman Keith Ellis said he was also caught off guard by the provision that allows churches in all zoning districts.
“As news broke concerning this Muslim development, I was surprised to find that zoning changes would not be made,” Ellis said. “The board may have to address a conditional use permit (for a proposed school on the site). Given the opportunity, if it is constitutional, I would oppose the request. My first knowledge of the development led me to the Tax Assessor’s website. There I found who the previous owners had been. Needless to say, I was disappointed. Money talks!”
Al Maad Al Islami already owns a mosque and school on Woodwin Road in Doraville. It was not clear if the Newton County project is an expansion or a relocation for the organization. Attempts by the Citizen to reach a representative of Al Maad Al Islami have been unsuccessful.
Douglas said he has other concerns, as well.
“The first question that comes to my mind is if there are enough Muslims in south Newton County that we need to build not only a mosque but a community, a school and what all is in the plan,” said Douglas, “would building those things make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East? So I do have some concerns, like the people who live down there.”
Richie Dimsdale, who lives on County Line Road across from the proposed site of the mosque, said he and other residents of the area have been communicating about the development through social media. Their concerns include increased traffic and noise and the disruption of their quiet, rural lifestyle.
“For 16 years we’ve been able to look across the street and see nothing but woods,” he said.
Dimsdale, whose uncle Ronnie Dimsdale is a former Newton commissioner, said he had done some online research on Al Maad Al Islami and learned that neighbors in DeKalb County have had complaints about noise, traffic and code violations that went unresolved.
Like Douglas, Dimsdale said he also was concerned that the project had gotten this far along without public knowledge.
“I know before you even get permission to build something of that magnitude, you are going to deliberate over your taxes, your electricity, your water … somebody at the county knew about this months ago and it’s just now coming to light at a point where it’s almost unstoppable,” he said.
Al Maad Al Islami purchased the proposed site of the mosque in August 2015 for about $1.3 million from Neely Farms Family Limited Partnership. Covington attorney Phil Johnson, former Democrat candidate for commission chairman, is listed as the partnership’s registered agent.