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As Long as We Remember...

December 21, 2009

Citizens For Walkersville Postscript

Steven R. Berryman

With little fanfare or media coverage, last Friday around noon, the last chapter of the “Citizens for Walkersville” saga ended with the sale of the old Nicodemus Farm to the Town of Walkersville.


This 224-acre farm containing the historical John Walker house at the hilltop was – of course – owned by real estate developer David Moxley and his father. The property sale in the amount of $3.8 million officially terminated the pending 276-count federal lawsuit against town officials, members of the group “Citizens for Walkersville,” and others – including yours truly for a token amount – for $16.5 million.


If the town had lost the suit, the larger amount would have come out of town coffers with no farm to show for it. The cash paid for the farm on Friday was at a lower per-acre cost than was offered to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (AMC) by Moxley in their originally cancelled contract.


Considering the worst-case consequences, this amounted to only an “equity transfer” that Walkersville could easily afford and justify, even as a real estate investment. This was truly a win-win settlement.


As Walkersville is cash-rich in assets relative to almost all other small towns in Maryland, only $800,000 was borrowed to facilitate the deal.


After a court ordered arbitration and binding compromise that culminated in this fair amount, the terms were written to force a close on the deal by year’s end, or the suit would have been voided.


Now, the town moves on, and Mr. Moxley moves away.


The Town of Walkersville has indicated through statements by Town Commissioners Chad W. Weddle and Russ Winch that usages of the new farm could include new sources of well water, a town park, preservation of the Walker House, and a future sale of part of the property as a real estate investment. As land values return to what was normal in the next few years, surely this will be a worthy and safe move.


Had the case been fully litigated in trial, it could have conceivably gone all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and ended in a potentially landmark decision that would have impacted “Religious Land Use Laws,” or RLUIPA, which were originally conceived to protect freedoms to worship in land usage decisions.


In this instance, they had been used unfairly to force a real estate deal.


In the end, it had been a fully developed and played-out game of poker. My sense is that if the federal suit had gone all of the way, it would have been dismissed; but at what cost, both in terms of time and of attorney fees? And at what risk?


It is worth noting that the participation of attorney Robert McGill in the case assisting me, and also defendant Ed Marino, was fully pro bono.


Several interesting aspects remain unresolved now, even as the case is closed:


Should a land developer have been allowed to bully a town into submission, even after a history of two previous attempts to win an exception to agricultural zoning had been denied under appeal? Both times for housing projects.


Yes, Mr. Moxley had been denied all along in his projects, since the days Frederick County Commissioner John “Lenny” Thompson served as the town burgess and may have actually been seeking out the religious usage twist as either negotiation leverage or a complicating revenge.


And, was the AMCs original request to build justified?


Testimony before the Walkersville Appeals Board, which ultimately ruled on the zoning change request under the town’s 14 related rules of law, did not introduce any local community members of Islam at the hearings asking for a needed place of worship; not one!


In fact, the AMC petition had always been for a huge national “convention center,” with a minimal percent usage as a mosque. After it surfaced that this convention center usage was patently denied as a reason for zoning exception, the AMC changed its story, simply claiming it was a house of worship.


Much argument had centered upon this, and it was later unearthed that both the application to the town by the AMC, as well as their articles of incorporation as a LLC, fully called the structure a “convention center.”


Had the original design and intent of the use of the Nicodemus-Moxley farm been simply for a mosque, and supported by locals with a need to worship, I have no doubt that there would never have been the grass roots town group in opposition. Approval would have been swift.


Had Mr. Moxley and the AMC not presented their master plan for development to the town with a battery of their own attorneys sitting nearby that might have swayed opinion a bit, too!


Could – or should – have the Town of Walkersville denied even the application itself for zoning change and avoided painful deliberation, altogether based upon the stated usage being a convention center?




But then, without a full town hearing to get out the facts, it could have been even easier to invoke a suit under the RLUIPA laws.


And so it played out to an amicable solution.


As a media liaison for the group Citizens for Walkersville, and its vice-president, I collected, read, and counted over 87 columns and articles written on this saga. It was quite a run, and reached around the world in interest level.


It’s fully over now, and time to take stock, and to get back to normal.


In this case, the system had worked.


[Note: For further review please see the original posts from The Tentacle: Citizens For Walkersville  Lessons Learned  From Walkersville With Bias]


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