A battle is going on in exurban Henrico County in central Virginia between legacy property rights of a private road and expansion of the Islamic Center of Richmond (ICR). The ICR website estimates there are 1,500 Muslim residents in the West End of Richmond. The battle is not about freedom to worship protected under the First Amendment and federal laws granting exemption waivers from local land zoning laws. Instead it is about the abuse of the courts through lawfare to create a Muslim preserve in Central Virginia through force majeure, harassment and intimidation. The actors in the dispute are Sylvia Hoehns-Wright, an expert horticulturalist and author versus the land agent for the ICR, Yunus Vohra, a commercial property developer embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings and litigation. Vohra contended at an August 2014 County Planning hearing that the delay in rezoning applications by the ICR reflected anti-Muslim bias.
Among the few national groups endeavoring to raise public awareness of the Hoehns-Wright litigation battle brought by Vohra, ICR land agent, is the National Security Task Force of the Lisa Benson Show airing Sundays on KKNT AM960 The Patriot.
On September 28, 2015, a four day trial will be held on a complaint brought by Vohra, a land agent for the ICR, against Wright. A State Court proceeding held in Henrico County on August 7, 2015 ruled against Wright who filed a compel order on February 18, 2015 seeking discovery rights to information providing the basis for the complaint brought by Vohra. Judge Lee H. Harris in the State Circuit court ruled in favor of Vohra on the grounds that his attorney’s review of the information was sufficient to proceed to trial as he trusted his representations as an officer of the court. Vohra has ratcheted up the litigation by filing a witness list that amounts to a dragnet of local and state planning officials up to and including the Commonwealth Attorney assigned to Henrico County, Virginia, Shannon Taylor. They allegedly support Vohra’s position that the ICR is being subjected to a conspiracy laced with alleged racist overtones; specious on its face as Islam is a belief system, its adherents don’t constitute a race. The trial in Henrico County State Circuit Court will culminate a four year battle for possession of a legacy private road providing access and egress for nine residences in the subdivision of Hoehns Lakeview Farms in Henrico County.
The complaint was originally brought in November 2013 by Vohra against the dominant landholder, Ms. Sylvia Hoehns-Wright, an expert horticulturalist, and her neighbors seeking possession of the private Hoehns Road. It was expanded in January 2014 to include others, some who reside in the complex and others who do not reside in the area, alleging that they and Wright constituted a “business conspiracy” depriving Vohra and his ICR invitees of egress to an adjacent parcel to build a Muslim village. Wright and counsel contended in a June 2014 hearing in state court that the ICR already has sufficient egress to their property. The ICR complaint is seeking treble damages and reimbursement of the costs of the litigation estimated at $1.5 million and possession of the private Hoehns Road. Problem is that Vohra’s request for a survey was turned down by the County Planning Commission.
Wright and her neighbors have had repeated violations of active trespass on the private road by Vohra and ICR members who have accused Wright and county planning board members of racism for blocking access and development of the property. In the run up to the September 2015 civil trial Vohra filed a police report accusing Wright of violating his property by planting ornamental flowers on the road’s periphery which is an activity protected by “property rights” recorded in the Henrico County records room. To add to the already toxic climate, one of Wright’s witnesses reported finding a dead snake and mole, positioned in such a manner to represent Islamic symbols of an evil intent and theft. The expanded complaint, coupled with evidence of aggressive trespass and threats of intimidation are in furtherance of the ICR’s objective of block busting the subdivision so that it can develop a so-called Muslim village on an adjacent parcel to the private Hoehns Road. The legal definition of “block busting” is:
The practice of illegally frightening homeowners by telling them that people who are members of a particular race, religion, or national origin are moving into their neighborhood and that they should expect a decline in the value of their property. The purpose of this scheme is to get the homeowners to sell out at a deflated price.
An unscrupulous real estate agent will subsequently sell the vacated homes to minority group members at an inflated price, thereby obtaining a large profit. Fair access to housing is defeated by blockbusting.
The rights to the easements present-day known as Hoehns Road were granted to Ms. Wright’s father in 1939 by his mother under Virginia’s “quiet possession” laws. The original property was acquired by Ms. Wrights’ Quaker family who settled there in 1838. Ms. Wright was granted the land and its easements rights in 1983. In 2011 a relative sold seven acres with several small outbuildings to Vohra, who then gifted half of the property to the ICR for construction of a 31,000 square foot mega mosque complex, inclusive of sanctuary, Muslim school and community center. Ms. Wright contested the original County approval in 2012 of the ICR project and the County scaled down the size of the plan to 10,000 square feet. Wright’s neighbors, on her behalf, filed a request in June 2012 with former US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He submitted the question on the dispute to the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division then headed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, now Labor Secretary in the Obama Administration. Perez replied in a letter dated September 5, 2012 sent to Cantor, he determined that the dispute involved property rights and not exemption waivers from local land zoning under the Federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). In his letter to Cantor, Perez concluded:
Complaints related to this site appear to be the result of a failure to be respectful of the property rights of nearby property owners and the surrounding community’s expectation of public safety and welfare. While Henrico County is operating under a consent decree issued by the United District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia related to a dispute to rezone property to build a mosque on Impala Drive, the Hungary Road site’s issues fall outside of this purview. Enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) should not interfere with the County’s standard regulations and procedures.
According to a report on RLUPIA cases the U.S. Department of Justice:
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise through application of zoning and landmarking laws.
The consent decree involving mosque building in Henrico County that Perez referred to was entered into the Eastern Federal District Court of Virginia a year earlier on September 12, 2011 involved a dispute that arose over an application for a mosque in 2008. The background and scope of the consent decree created the basis for County Planning Department reviews imposing diversity training for officials and staff was summarized in this USDOJ RLUIPA case report:
The case arose from the county’s denial of a 2008 application for construction of a mosque by 1241 Associates, LLC, a Muslim organization. The government’s complaint, which was filed with the court along with a proposed consent decree, alleged that the county’s denial of the rezoning application was based on the religious bias of county officials and to appease members of the public who, because of religious bias, opposed the construction of the mosque. The complaint further alleged that the county treated the Muslim organization differently than non-Muslim groups that regularly have been granted similar rezoning requests.
As part of the settlement, the county agreed to treat the mosque and all religious groups equally and to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices. The county also agreed that its leaders and various county employees will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the county will report periodically to the Justice Department.
Based on a legal memorandum prepared for a Brentwood mosque application in Williamson County Tennessee, existing RLUIPA case law will not prevent Henrico County, like many other localities in the same quandary across America, from using existing police powers to conduct background investigations of mega-mosque applications.
The exurban area in Henrico County, the locus of the ICR civil trial proceedings against Wright and subdivision neighbors is zoned as mixed agricultural and residential lands. Following the acquisition of the land by ICR Wright filed complaints with the County of traffic and excessive unrestricted parking on the site for observances using the existing outbuildings on the property. Some have questioned this activity at the ICR as amounting to “parking Jihad.” Signs on the private Hoehns Road warning about trespassing were frequently defaced and trashed. Vohra and other ICR members have been photographed in episodes of aggressive trespass blocking passage by Wright and neighbors.
Watch this September 4, 2015 CBS Channel 6 WTVR News Richmond, Virginia video interview with Sylvia Hoehns-Wright:
Vohra, the land agent for the ICR who applied for their plan of development, as principal in a local motel property limited liability corporation, Shree Arihant, has been caught up in a web of litigation arising from the default on a $1.75 million loan with the former Bank of Richmond for acquisition of the Economy Inn located in the so-called Diamond district of Richmond. Richmond BizSense (RBS) reported in January 2014 that Shree Arihant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 27, 2013 ahead of a scheduled foreclosure auction of the Economy Inn. Shree Arihant president Yunus Vohra also controls Shaan LLC, an entity that previously owned the Red Carpet Inn. Vohra lost the rights to use the Red Carpet and Scottish Inns names in 2012, In July 2014. RBS reported the auction of the Economy Inn property in bankruptcy to satisfy the creditors of the defaulted debt with Shree Arihant principal Vohra alleging he had two offers of $2 million and $1.45 million for the property.
A check of the Justicia website revealed further commercial litigation involving Vohra, Shree Arihant and Shaan, LLC:
- Choice Hotels International, Inc. v. Shree Arihant of Richmond, Inc. et al for trademark infringement, April 9, 2010 Fourth Circuit Virginia District Court;
- Hospitality International, Inc. et al v. Shaan, LLC et al for trademark infringement, June 18, 2013 Virginia Fourth District Court; and,
- DISH NETWORK L.L.C. et al v. VOHRA for Unlawful Reception Broadcast Signal i.e., Satellite, Third Circuit Pennsylvania Eastern District Court.
Then there are questions about the original land acquisition transaction by Vohra for the ICR in 2011. How was it financed as there was apparently no title insurance purchased until after the sale by Wright’s relatives to Vohra? Further, there is the matter of tax treatment of the gift of the acquired property conveyed by Vohra to the ICR.
The forthcoming four-day trial in the Henrico State Circuit Court on September 28th will be preceded by a pre-trial conference. Without discovery of the underlying documentation and depositions of the drag net of witnesses listed in Vohra’s amended plaintiff complaint against Wright et.al., how could this upcoming trial begin? The outcome of which, in the absence of the facts, might result in the forced sale of the residences in the Hoehns Lakeview Farm subdivision at distressed values should the jury issue a decision in favor of Vohra. Any adverse decision reached in the jury trial would not be a victory for freedom of religious practice. Instead, it would constitute a victory for lawfare tactics by local Muslim leadership at the Islamic Center of Richmond seeking to create a Sharia compliant enclave at the cost of residents in the Hoehns Farm subdivision.
Following the US Department of Justice consent decree entered into with Henrico County in the Eastern Federal District Court in September 12, 2011 regarding land zoning waivers under RLUIPA for creation of mosques in central Virginia, a public letter was issued by the clergy association of the County. The letter expressed a welcome to Muslims establishing mosques in Henrico County signed by ministers and pastors of various Protestant denominations, the Catholic archdiocese and rabbis of local synagogues. As exhibited by the current litigation launched by Vohra on behalf of the ICR, this is hardly a grateful gesture to the residents of the Hoehns Lakeview Farms Subdivision for the welcome sought by the clergy of Henrico County, Virginia for the Richmond west end Muslim community.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.