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Variance denied for Muslim cemetery

A Muslim group looking to build a cemetery in Lackawanna will have to appeal to the City Council, after its variance request was denied by the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.

Current city code requires that cemeteries have at least 20 acres.

The Lackawanna Islamic Mosque has less than 10 acres for its proposed cemetery on South Street in the 1st Ward, so it was seeking a variance to move ahead with the project.

But the board unanimously rejected the request at its most recent meeting May 3, saying the city code was clear on the amount of land required.

"They fell way short of it," said Faith Gordon, chairwoman of the Zoning Board of Appeals. "Even the nine acres they have, there's issues with it."

Gordon said mosque leaders were aware of the city code when they purchased the former industrial site from the city in 2010.

"They knew ahead of time. They were cautioned. They were warned," she said.

But Mohamed Saleh, director of the mosque, said the group was not properly informed of minimum land requirements for a cemetery when the city agreed to the sale for $5,700.

"No acreage was mentioned," said Saleh.

It's not necessary for a religious cemetery to have large amounts of land, he added.

"Nine acres will last for probably three centuries or maybe more," said Saleh. "There are so many cemeteries with less than five acres."

Bruce A. Ikefugi, a lawyer representing the mosque, said plenty of communities in Western New York have cemeteries with fewer than five, or even three acres. He said the city's code requiring 20 acres seems arbitrary.

The City Council has the power to change zoning requirements, and Saleh and Ikefugi indicated they would likely take up the matter with council members.

The Zoning Board of Appeals initially tabled a vote on the mosque's request in March, after a group of parishioners from St. Anthony Church expressed concern about the potential for toxins in the soil of the former industrial site to be stirred up if burial plots are established there.

But the state Department of Environmental Conservation has said there are no environmental restrictions against a cemetery on the property.

Saleh said the mosque would never be able to find 20 contiguous acres to satisfy the city code.

"This is the biggest [amount of] land located in the 1st Ward of Lackawanna," he said. "I hope there is a solution to satisfy everyone."