WALKERSVILLE, Md. — The rural Maryland town of Walkersville, accused in a federal lawsuit of religious bias for rejecting a Muslim group's mosque proposal, has turned down a similar zoning request from a private school the community had courted.
Approving the Banner School's request for an exemption from agricultural land-use rules could have weakened the town's defense against the lawsuit, Ralph Whitmore, the town’s burgess (mayor), said after the Nov. 12 4-1 vote by the town commission.
Disappointed officials with the nonsectarian school said they were considering seeking a change in the 29-acre parcel's zoning designation from agricultural to institutional, or taking legal action against the town.
"What they did is a real disservice to the kids," Banner Headmaster Les McLean told The Frederick News-Post.
He said the school, which operates out of leased space in nearby Frederick, has spent 2½ years and nearly $750,000 on its Walkersville construction plans.
"We raised all of that money through small contributions, Friday night bingo and the sweat of volunteers," McLean said. "That's all down the toilet. I think we need to look at what we can recoup."
The school, for grades K-9, charges tuition of $9,900 to $13,000 for the current school year.
The town's Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously last February to deny the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA permission to use a 224-acre piece of farmland for religious purposes. The Silver Spring-based group planned to hold its national conventions on the site, drawing thousands of visitors whom local officials said would overwhelm roads and emergency services in the town of 5,600.
The rejection prompted the Ahmadis to cancel their planned purchase of the land from local developer David Moxley and his family-owned companies. Moxley then sued the town for $16.5 million, claiming a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars land-use regulations that discriminate against religious organizations.
The lawsuit alleges town officials conspired to block the Ahmadis by adopting new land-use restrictions, including one barring places of worship and private schools on agricultural land.