By Arielle Kass, ajc.com Staff Writer
Gwinnett County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to deny development of a Bosnian cemetery, following the wishes of neighbors who said the burials would deflate property values and increase traffic.
In addition to the traditional concerns about development, though, was an undercurrent of Islamophobia. Most members of the Bosnian community in Gwinnett are Muslim, though people of any religion could have been buried in the cemetery.
Local residents lobbied for the proposal to be defeated in emails and Facebook posts before the meeting. They mentioned 9/11, complained about the loud chanting they thought would come with funerals and said on the Community of Bosniaks’ Facebook page that Islam “isn’t peace loving.”
“We feel like it’s them not really knowing our culture, like they’re afraid of the unknown,” said Darel Duliman, a spokesman for the Community of Bosniaks, before the vote. “They don’t want to mention we’re Muslim. It’s been coded with everything you can imagine.”
Dozens of residents came to the meeting to oppose the cemetery, and several said they thought it was unfair that their property values could be harmed by it.
“I would not have moved to the community had I known there was a cemetery up the street,” said one neighbor, Kenneth Rowe. “We would’ve never bought down here if we’d known a cemetery was here.”
Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who made the motion for denial, said it was a difficult decision. The commission then voted for denial without discussion. The county’s planning commission had recommended approval of 500 plots, though the Community of Bosniaks, which made the request, asked for 2,000.
Metro Atlanta’s Bosnian community counts about 8,000 members, and 80 percent of them are in Gwinnett. Ismet Zejnelovic, imam for the Community of Bosniaks Georgia, said his community has 750 families, but he expected more would have joined in order to be buried in the cemetery.
Members of the Bosnian community have been buried in Muslim cemeteries with Pakistanis, Arabs and other Muslims, he said. But Zejnelovic said their culture is different and they would prefer to be buried with people from a similar background.
“We are European; we’re different from other Muslims,” Zejnelovic said.
The Community of Bosniaks had asked to rezone 12.6 acres near Skyland Drive and Temple Johnson Road in Snellville for the cemetery. The land is still zoned to allow for a mosque or church, or homes.
In the meeting Tuesday, neighbors said more than 400 people had signed a petition opposed to the cemetery. They also presented an appraisal report that said home values are negatively affected by proximity to a cemetery and that homes near cemeteries often take longer to sell.
A cemetery “would not support a residential environment,” said another neighbor, Kevin Smith.
Several who emailed and called about the proposed cemetery prior to the vote implied they did not want the cemetery nearby because of the religion of many users, without saying it outright.
“It’s more that it’s us, that we’re Muslim,” Duliman said.
Normally, cemeteries make some neighbors uneasy, planning commission chairman Chuck Warbington said before the vote.
“This escalated that a little bit further,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear associated with it.”