Ray Elk answers questions from members of the Horn Lake Planning Commission about a proposed Muslim cemetery.

A request to build a Muslim cemetery on Church Road narrowly passed the city’s planning commission and will now go before the Horn Lake Board of Aldermen on Oct. 18.

The Planning Commission voted 4-3 at its Sept. 26 meeting - with Chairman Chad Engelke casting the tie breaker - to allow a cemetery on 1.2 acres of an 80 acre property at 4600 Church Road.

Members expressed concerns about possible soil contamination caused by the interments at the site, as well as potential discrimination against women not being allowed to attend burial services.

The location of the proposed cemetery is part of a larger plan by developers to build a mosque. The city turned down the mosque back in April 2021, but was ordered by a federal court to approve the site plan and pay $25,000 in legal expenses after the developer sued the city alleging they discriminated against him on the basis of his religion, which the court agreed.

Commissioner Angie Little questioned why the engineers didn’t dig more test holes at the proposed site of the cemetery to determine whether the soil was suitable for the intended use. She pointed out that they only bored six holes, only three of which were near the proposed cemetery site. The other holes were bored closer to where the future mosque and parking lot will be built.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate enough study for that area,” Little said. “I don’t agree with the study they had. It’s not conclusive enough.”

A report by the state soil scientist who reviewed the soil study stated that the site has two types of soil - silt loam (LG) and Memphis silt loam (MA), both of which are suitable for a cemetery. The two soil types consist mostly of silty clay which easily absorb any bacteria or other contaminants from reaching the groundwater.

Doug Thornton of the architectural firm AERC, told commissioners that the bore holes were done in a broad pattern at the site, and that the only reason engineers did not bore more hole is because the soil was relatively the same throughout the property.

“If we had seen a variety of soil types, I agree, we would have done more in that specific area,” Thornton said. “But with all of them being fairly consistent and fairly similar soil types and with none of them hitting groundwater, we felt like it covered the questions that were asked.”

City Planning Director Chad Bahr said he was disappointed that most of the bore holes were closer to the proposed mosque, but agreed with the assessment of the state soil engineer.

“It would have been nice to see two or three more bore holes,” Bahr said. “Personally, I wasn’t going to second guess the state soil scientist. That’s his thing and what we sent him, and that was his conclusion that it would be acceptable as a site based on the soils there.”

Commissioner Janice Vidal sided with Little and expressed similar concerns about the suitability of the soil. She said she would be more comfortable if the developers added more soil to the site to guard against potential contamination reaching the ground water.

“I maybe would feel better and be open to voting for it,” Vidal said. “But I need an answer. Even with what they are telling me, I’m still not convinced.”

Bahr went over the factors the planning commission can consider when granting or denying a conditional use permit: whether it would increase traffic hazards or congestion; whether it would substantially increase the fire hazard; whether it would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood; whether it would adversely affect the general welfare of the city; whether it is in compliance with the comprehensive plan; and whether it would overtax public utilities or community facilities like police, fire or city parks.

The application for the conditional use permit notes that there are already cemeteries on Church Road and Fogg Road, that it would further diversify the community and provide a service not currently offered in Horn Lake, and that the cemetery would not create any noise, health, or safety issues.

Bahr recommended the conditional use permit be approved with four conditions: that the developer install trees and plants along the perimeter of the cemetery site to absorb any microorganisms; that the cemetery be placed in an area with the appropriate soil types; that the applicant must follow the city’s subdivision regulations if the property is subdivided at a future date; and that all burial sites must have one yard of subsoil below the burial pit.

A motion by Commissioner William Egner failed for lack of a second, which prompted more discussion by the board. Little pointed out that Horn Lake only has about 10,000 acres of land left to develop, and said she doesn’t believe a cemetery is a good use for that property.

“That’s one of my concerns,” Little said. “I’m just not convinced that a cemetery is the best use of that 10,000.”

Little added that Horn Lake has never approved a cemetery in its history. She said one of the cemeteries was put in place in 1873 and was annexed into the city in 2002, and hasn’t had a burial there since 2013.

“This would be our first cemetery,” Little said.

Little asked developer Ray Elk if the proposed cemetery would be similar to the Dar ar-Rahma Muslim Cemetery in Arlington, Tennessee.

“Is it going to be the same?” Little asked.

“Most likely, yes,” Elk responded.

Little then pointed out that the Muslim Cemetery does not allow women at the burial services. 

“That’s what their rules and regulations say,” Little said. “You can look at them. It’s rule No. 3 on their list.”

Elk said he was unfamiliar with that rule and said the one in Horn Lake would not discriminate against women.

“I’ve never heard of that,” Elk said. “I’m going to have to look in to that.”

Little then asked if non-Muslims would be allowed to be buried in the cemetery.

“Is it going to be a public or private cemetery?” Little asked.

“It’s for the community,” Elk answered.

“So other denominations could?” Little said.

Elk said they could dedicate an area in the cemetery for non-Muslims to be buried. He pointed out that his mother is buried in a Christian cemetery which has an area for Muslim burials.

“Yes, we would have an area for non-Muslims like the way Christian cemeteries do,” Elk said. “For example, when my mom passed away, she was buried in a Christian cemetery, but they dedicated an area for Muslim people.”

Egner made a second motion to approve the conditional use permit, which was seconded by Commissioner Jimmy Stokes. Little amended the motion to include four conditions: that the developer file a list of the cemetery’s rules and guidelines with the city; the mosque must be built and in use before the cemetery can be utilized; that the cemetery can’t be enlarged without a city permit; and that no discrimination be allowed against females.

“I just want to make sure that there is no discrimination on anybody’s side or anybody’s part,” Little said. “And maybe me being female, I take notice of that kind of thing.”

Egner agreed to amend his motion, but the vote ended in a tie. Voting “yes” were Egner, Vidal and Stokes. Commissioners Little, Linda McGan, and William Mercer voted “no.”


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