An attorney I know once told me that finding compromise with a zoning issue is often more contentious than reaching an accord in a divorce settlement. I’ve never been divorced – but I have been on the receiving end of zoning-related ire on more than one occasion. It’s… not pleasant. Thankfully, with nearly every zoning issue, there are typically criteria and conditions that must be met, whether it’s related to the current or future land use plan, state or federal laws, or existing county or city ordinances. With that in mind, I initially had a little bit of empathy for the Newton County Board of Commissioners, since it’s never fun to explain to constituents why, no matter how much they might hate a project, it is going to happen because it complies with all county or city requirements.
As the story unfolded, my empathy waned. Discussions have taken place in comment sections online and at several town hall-style meetings hosted by the Newton County Board of commissioners. The AJC encapsulated the “Mosque Pro & Con” down to this short video; WABE offered additional audio. Most of the comments I’ve read are truly something special, and by “something special,” I mean that they are overwhelmingly uninformed and unkind. I read one comment where a woman expressed her concern with the “natural” burial methods that would be utilized at the proposed cemetery, and a gentleman replied, “All they need to do is go to a pork processing plant & pick up the drippings & scatter them on the property & that would be the end of the mosque & cemetery.”
Newton County Board of Commissioners chair Keith Ellis told the AJC that the purpose of the town hall meetings is to “provide our citizens with a platform to express their concerns and ask questions about the proposed project.” It is clear by now that the meetings are primarily a forum for people to self-identify as religiously intolerant anti-Muslims (although it is notable that out of a population of more than 100,000 people, only 600 concerned residents have spoken out against this project). What’s proposed for this site differs little from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Rockdale County, which also features a natural burial ground, a worship space, residences for the monks, and classrooms and residence spaces for guests attending retreats. The mosque probably won’t sell fudge or bonsai trees (both of which I highly recommend) – but essentially, the property uses are the same.
The proposed mosque really isn’t even a zoning issue. All of the proposed uses for the site are currently permitted land uses for the site’s existing zoning category. The Newton County Board of Commissioners will not vote on this project – and the county’s current moratorium on new places of worship is not something that will endure, as it’s not as if no new churches of any faith will want to open their doors to worshipers in Newton County. It’s what’s widely known as a staff-level decision – that is, a developer brings a proposal to county staff, staff reviews the proposal and determines whether or not it requires any variances or rezonings, and if it doesn’t, the matter proceeds through the established permitting processes, no vote necessary.
Regardless of what people think of the Neely family selling their land, regardless of whether how many Newtonians really hate Muslims, regardless of how any members of the Board of Commissioners feel about the proposed project – this is a legal project that meets the requirements for legal land uses and it is going to happen. The public can state their view at as many public forums, and as stridently or loudly, as they want – but it won’t change the outcome.
So, then, what is the purpose of these meetings? To let anti-Muslim members of the Board of Commissioners tell their constituents at election time that they did everything they could to stop the Muslim onslaught from entering Newton County? To rile people up in the midst of a presidential election cycle that is rife with accusations of bigotry from both sides?
Today, a group of mayors from across Newton County urged the Board of Commissioners to please stop embarrassing their county. Commission Chair Ellis could not be reached for comment. It’s unlikely that anyone else in Newton County will withhold theirs.