Clark County commissioners have given their blessing to plans for the valley’s first Islamic cemetery, but many neighbors have yet to make peace with the project.
Osama Haikal, a longtime local physician, won unanimous approval Wednesday for a private, nonprofit cemetery on two acres a few miles south of McCarran International Airport, despite the objections of several dozen nearby residents.
A grateful Haikal said he hopes to start construction as soon as possible, once a drainage study is complete and other conditions are met for the site on Bermuda Road between Warm Springs and Robindale roads.
He said local Muslims need a burial place of their own to practice traditional funeral rites, which call for the dead to be washed, wrapped in plain cloth and buried as quickly as possible facing Mecca in a grave with no casket and only modest markings.
“I’ve been working on this project for 12 years,” said Haikal, a 30-year valley resident who helped establish the Omar Haikal Islamic Academy and Mosque just north of the cemetery site.
Before Wednesday’s vote, the commission heard from about 20 of Haikal’s neighbors who said they don’t want to live near a cemetery, regardless of its religious affiliation.
They argued that the project would disrupt the character of their neighborhood, drive down their property values and snarl traffic. Some even raised concerns that decomposing bodies could be unearthed by flooding or contaminate groundwater in the area, where a number of homes are fed by wells.
John and Tracy Webb share a property line with the cemetery site, but he said their home for the past 15 years is far from the only private property that could be impacted negatively by the project.
“I’m afraid it will open the door to more commercial development,” John Webb said.
An emotional Tracy Webb said having a cemetery built just behind their back fence could prompt them to put their house on the market. “It doesn’t feel good to be pushed out of a home you built from the ground up,” she said.
Tim O’Reilly, who lives on Bermuda just south of the cemetery site, said he doesn’t think he should have to listen to burial services when he’s outside having a cookout and “enjoying life.”
“It’s an infringement on my privacy,” he said. “It just doesn’t fit the neighborhood.”
Unfortunately, said commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, that’s not a legally defensible argument the county can use to reject a land use that is allowable under its own regulations.
The county’s legal counsel agreed. “I think if it’s denied and we go to court, I don’t think we have much of a case at all,” said Rob Warhola from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office.
Haikal’s attorney, Lucy Stewart, said cemeteries fit in with other “singular uses” such as churches and schools that “need to be in neighborhoods.” This one will have no signs, a small funeral home resembling a modest house and flat graves marked with simple plaques placed at ground level.
“I think it will look like a house with a really big yard,” she said.
As for the environmental concerns, Haikal said homeowners who get their water from wells have far more to fear from their own septic tanks than they do from a cemetery down the street. Though no caskets will be used, bodies buried at the cemetery will be enclosed in concrete vaults. He said any flood powerful enough to displace the graves would also wipe out all of the surrounding homes “so there would be no one around to notice.”
Warhola said the cemetery will be subject to all state laws and environmental regulations governing the disposal of human remains.
To address some of the neighbors’ concerns, Haikal agreed to a list of 19 additional improvements and conditions for the project, including a higher wall, more landscaping, and specific hours of operation to prevent burials after dark or at high traffic times such as when students are coming and going from two nearby schools.
At the start of Wednesday’s public hearing, Sisolak cautioned everyone to keep the discussion respectful, noting that some of the emails sent to him about the proposed cemetery were among the most “arrogant and disgusting” he had received in all his years on the commission.
The warning proved unnecessary. Many of those who spoke were careful to say that they supported the idea of an Islamic cemetery, just not at this location. No one said they objected to the project because it would serve Muslims.
This project is personal for Haikal. He said accommodations for Islamic burials are not easy to find in Las Vegas, something he learned personally four years ago when his wife died from leukemia and he had to fight the funeral home over the arrangements.
Ultimately, Haikal said he understands the concerns of his neighbors because he is one of them.
“I was not dropped by a drone right into this site and said ‘I will put a cemetery in there,’ ” he said. “I have been in this neighborhood for 16 years, and I have done everything imaginable to make sure that none of them were hurt.”