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Proposed place of worship spurs moratorium
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The possibility of a mosque coming to Newton County had citizens taking to social media and scrambling for answers, politicians looking into the county’s zoning ordinances and Atlanta media descending on the Newton County Historic Courthouse last week.

Word of a proposed mosque on Georgia Highway 162 and County Line Road spread before the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) addressed the issue at its public meeting Tuesday night attended by a standing-room only crowd and three Atlanta television stations.

The BOC has since scheduled a town hall meeting for Monday, Aug. 22 at the Newton County Historic Courthouse to receive public comments on the proposed mosque. The meeting will be divided into two sessions, limited to 300 people each, with the first from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. and the second from 7:45 p.m.-9:15 p.m.

Newton County also will have a five-week moratorium on permit applications for places of worship after a motion proposed by District 1 Commissioner John Douglas passed unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting. The owners of the proposed mosque have submitted an administrative use permit that was approved, but no building permits have been applied for as of Tuesday night’s meeting.


The motion was added to the meeting’s agenda by Douglas in response to a 2015 land sale of two lots totaling 135 acres at the intersection of Hwy. 162 and County Line Road. The land was purchased from Neely Farms Family by Al Maad Al Islami Inc, which owns a mosque in Doraville, on Aug. 26 for a total of $675,900 from Neely Family Farms, LLC. A place of worship, cemetery and possible school were planned for the land.

A use permit was granted on June 16, 2015, by Newton County Developmental Services without a public hearing or notice because the county ordinance permits places of worship in all zoning areas. Cemeteries are also permissible in areas zoned agriculture residential, as long as the property is at least 10 acres in size and all graves are set back 40-feet from property or right-of-way lines, according to Section 510-151 of the Newton County Zoning Ordinance.

In accordance with Article five of the Newton County zoning ordinance, a place of worship must be a minimum of four acres, and can only have accessory uses including Sunday School facilities, recreational areas, parking, cemetery, caretaker’s housing in a separate residential structure and residential living facilities such as a convent, abbey or parsonage. All places of worship fall under tax-exempt status.

“According to the site plan submitted with this request allocating 10.5 acres for the initial cemetery plus an additional 15.1 acres for cemetery expansion, the request to operate a private cemetery is an allowable ancillary use for a Place of Worship or a stand-alone use as presented,” said Judy Johnson, Zoning Administrator, in an approval letter to A Maad Al Islami, Inc., dated June 16, 2015. “The cemetery use must comply with the requirements of Sec. 510-151 of the Newton County Zoning Ordinance.”

If a school was built on the property, as mentioned in a Letter of Intent from the purchaser of the land, the BOC would need to grant a permit. The Letter of Intent also stated that the “initial access to the church site will be from County Line Road.” When the church is able to expand operations, the letter went on to say, a curb would be sought from the Georgia Department of Transportation for access onto Hwy. 162.

The potential additional traffic in the area is one of several reasons cited in public outcry against the project during Tuesday’s meeting, in comments on and on various social media outlets.

“Not only do we not want it here, we do not [have] the infrastructure to support it here,” said Wanda Rowe on The Covington News’ Facebook page. “We do not have enough water or sufficient roads to handle anything of this size!”
Newton County Manager Lloyd Kerr said at Tuesday’s meeting that the project was in line with the county’s zoning.

Because the place of worship was named Avery Community Church, as stated in a 2015 Letter of Intent, he said he did not discover it was for a proposed mosque and cemetery until a meeting Aug. 8 with engineers, the county’s zoning administrator, a member of the fire services department and landscape architect.


“My concern tonight is for the fact that our zoning department allowed this project, with its attended proposals for significant development beyond simply a worship hall, to advance as far as it has without any requirement that it be brought before this board for review,” Douglas said. “Given the trend toward larger and larger campus style, multi-service facilities for places of worship, I believe we as a board need to ask our planning professionals to take a look at the zoning ordinance and see if the current procedural and substantive requirements for places of worship are sufficient for the realty of these types of developments.”

To do that, he said, the county should take a five-week break from allowing new developments to come in and analyze its zoning ordinances and procedures.

He requested that during the BOC’s Sept. 20 meeting, county staff should present its findings and the board decide whether to amend its ordinance, extend the moratorium or allow the moratorium to expire and keep its ordinance as is.

“Such a moratorium is by no means intended to be a permanent hindrance to expansion of worship in general or any specific religion in Newton County in particular,” Douglas said. “Instead it is to be focused on good planning practice for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare.”

Phil Johnson, the seller’s agent in the transaction of the Hwy. 162 property, said that the law was followed in the land being sold for its future use. However, if changes were to be made in respect to the county’s zoning laws, changes should be made equally.

“If the BOC wants to make it more onerous to obtain a permit for a church in the future they can do so, but only with the understanding that it will apply to the Baptist and the Methodist as well as the Islamic and Hindu houses of worship,” Johnson said in a statement.

According to County records, a temple already exists in Newton County on Salem Road.

Kerr, in his own statement, pledged that the county would work with the developers if the project were to be moved forward.

“As a county, we understand the public’s concern regarding a development of this size and the impact it may have on surrounding neighborhoods,” Kerr said in a statement. “The right to practice one’s faith is protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits local governments from burdening citizens desiring to use land for purposes of worship with regulations not required of other similar land uses. Should this project move forward, the County pledges to work with the developers to protect the interests of our citizens to the best extent possible.”