Not Just Muslims Lose In Chester County Judge's Blunder

March 12, 2012

Americans are no strangers to Xenophobia, which, strangely enough, is an unreasonable fear of strangers.

And we have shown over the years to be equal opportunity Xenophobes; Krauts. Japs. Micks. Spics. Wops. Chinks. Niggers. Jews. Beaners. Even Native Americans, who actually owned the land before we got here. Our Great Melting Pot, which ostensibly welcomes "Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free", has demonstrated a remarkable ability to fear and loathe all ethnic minorities. Even at the top. See Obama, Barack.

And, today, there is perhaps no word in the English language that conjures up more fear and loathing than Muslim. What flashes into your mind - bloodthirsty, bearded jihadists? 9/11? Blind hatred of everything western?

Of course, not all Muslims are created equal, an amusing observation when one is discussing rights and prejudices in America. Just ask a Sunni about a Shia or Khariji. In fact, there are at least 30 active Muslim sects, with differences even wider than Christianity. And most are not the wild-eyed fanatics we see in news reports of bombings and beheadings. But that don't cut no ice with some Americans.

Welcome to East Fallowfield Township, Chester County, PA, founded in 1681. Well, welcome if you aren't a Muslim.

East Fallowfield's website notes that the population as of 2006 was 7028, and that they anticipated growth of 25 percent between 2000-2020. That would be about 1750 new residents. Sounds like there is room for a few more homes. There is no township real estate tax. 87 percent of the population has a high school or college degree. Median income above $60,000. Boasts the first iron mill in America.

The website also notes that, as part of the township's rich history, "Before European settlement, Indians of the Lenni Lenapes tribe were found in the County, but were rapidly displaced by the influx of settlers." Those settlers' descendents aren't much more tolerant today, because, while the website says "East Fallowfield Township exists as a semi-rural municipality, highlighted by development clusters," apparently the local Board of Supervisors does not consider such clusters to be "highlights". Not if Muslims want to build them.

Those East Fallowfield supervisors have sued their own Zoning Hearing Board to block a Muslim congregation of mostly white Main Line converts from building a retirement community for aging members. And a local judge now backs them up.

Senior Judge Ronald C. Nagle has ruled against the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in their long-standing zoning dispute with the township. The 350-member congregation wants to build 43 carriage-style houses clustered on a vacant 108-acre parcel that it bought in the 1980s.

The fellowship is named after a Sri Lankan, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen who began preaching a mystical form of Islam known as Sufism in 1971 in West Philadelphia. Several hundred of his followers converted. Many still live on the Main Line to be near the mosque in Wynnefield.

The retirement development had been in the works for years, and was moving into the final planning stages in 2009, when the supervisors filed suit to halt the project. The board argued that the addition of high-density housing on small lots would irreparably damage the area's bucolic charm. This, of course, is counter to the prevailing view that rural land is best preserved by dense development, which allows for more open space. And counter to their own website.

But newly elected Supervisor Chairman Chris Makely claimed that several recently built, dense-housing developments have "just ruined the footprint" of the rural township. "One of our jobs was . . . to slow down on cluster developments," he said. The supervisors challenged a crucial variance that the township ZHB had granted, which would have allowed the project to proceed. The parcel sits in a special development district designed to accommodate construction of the retirement homes. But, according to John E. Good, the fellowship's attorney, a flaw in the ordinance meant the project couldn't meet existing zoning requirements.

The supervisors and the fellowship tried for two years to reach a compromise. Finally, the matter went to court.

Judge Nagle has an extensive legal resume going back to 1965, but one things stand out: he has been a resident and practitioner in his hometown since he co-founded a private law firm in 1969. This includes 10 years of leadership in the Chester County Bar Association, and Chester County Bar Foundation, including the Presidency of both. He clerked for a former Chester County President Judge. In legal circles - and to the voters - he is Mr Chester County.

The East Fallowfield town fathers couldn't have asked for a more simpatico man on the bench. Nagle decreed that the ZHB had erred in allowing the fellowship's development to proceed, and had ignored important parts of the zoning code. No retirement community for the towelheads.

You may, or may not, be troubled by Nagle's ruling in favor of his 500,000 or so Chester County homefolks, and against the 350 Muslims. But, after all, Nagle does have to stand for retention. And, after all, they are Muslims. Who cares?

Unfortunately, we all should. Not for any noble sentiments about equality or freedom, but because, to justify his ruling, Nagle intentionally ignored an important, and well-known, state law that affects us all - particularly in Upper Bucks County. The supervisors made the decision to file their suit in a private, closed meeting, which is expressly prohibited by the state Sunshine Act. Nagle acknowledged that the process had violated PA law, but ruled that there "was no harm to the public or Bawa".

In fact, there was tremendous harm to the public, far beyond just this case. Nagle's ruling is an open invitation for municipal governments to simply act privately, without fear of consequences, regardless of what the state requires for community transparency. Forcing the East Fallowfield supervisors to start over, with public comment and open, recorded discussion, might not have changed the vote, but would have sent a message to municipal governments that they are not above the law, even when Muslims are involved.

Imagine what might have happened around here if a Judge Nagle had cavalierly allowed former QCSD school boards to blatantly ignore the Sunshine Act. It was bad enough that they did so on their own anyway, including renewing Superintendent Lisa Andrejko's contract last year. But at least on that one, community pressure forced the board into a public do-over, so it couldn't be hidden as they had hoped. Four of the offending directors are now history. The Sunshine Act has real community purpose.

And imagine if former Quakertown Borough Manager Dave Woglom had been allowed to get away with his more than $1 million in illegal no-bid contracts, handed out in private. He might still be wasting taxpayer dollars today. Fortunately, we now have honest, principled, people running Richland, Quakertown, and QCSD, so community insults like ignoring the Sunshine Act are not likely to occur.

The bottom line is that laws are made to be enforced in all situations, even by Xenophobes. Nagle's no-harm no-foul edict doesn't protect his community, it endangers it - and every other community. Hopefully his ruling will be overturned by the Commonwealth Court, so it can't be cited as precedent by the Andrejkos and Wogloms of the world.

If the ability to ignore public-protection laws becomes accepted in legal circles, communities everywhere will lose far more than the Bawas did.