Har Sinai accused of misleading residents

Neighbors oppose plan for synagogue in valley

February 09, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

In a hearing room filled to overflowing, residents of Worthington Valley accused Har Sinai officials yesterday of lying to them when presenting plans to build a synagogue and day care center in rural northwest Baltimore County.

Stuart D. Kaplow, the lawyer for opponents, asked Hearing Officer Lawrence Schmidt to dismiss Har Sinai's request to build the 65,200-square-foot religious center because, he said, the synagogue gave false information to the community in meetings last spring.

"We have rules about development in this county," Kaplow said at the first of eight days of hearings. "The developer cannot make false statements at community input meetings."

His request to dismiss the case was the first volley in the community's effort to defeat the proposed development at Greenspring and Walnut avenues, on a site that for years was used as a dump.

Har Sinai, the nation's oldest Reform Jewish congregation, wants to move from Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore to Worthington Valley to be closer to its members. The congregation is proposing to build a synagogue, with a day care center, social hall and Hebrew school, on the 17-acre property.

Residents say the facility would add traffic to clogged roads and threaten local wells by depleting ground water. Yesterday, more than 130 people crammed into a hearing room, prompting Schmidt to search for more comfortable accommodations for later hearings.

Kaplow argued yesterday that Har Sinai had received several environmental reports -- including one that found the chemical PCB on the property -- before community meetings were held on the plans last year.

He said J. Carroll Holzer, the lawyer for Har Sinai, misled the community when he said he had no knowledge of such reports. Kaplow said Holzer also didn't tell the truth when he said the property was owned by Har Sinai. It is owned by a holding company that might not be as accountable for expenses, he said.

But Holzer told Schmidt that he thought he answered residents' questions truthfully and argued that the community had not been harmed.

Schmidt agreed and refused to dismiss the case.

The lawyers in the case are unlikely banner carriers for their causes. Holzer is a zoning lawyer who usually represents communities fighting development. Kaplow is a real estate lawyer who, for the first time in 15 years of practice, is arguing on behalf of neighbors against a development plan.

"We were joking before the hearing started about who was going to sit on which side of the table," said Kaplow, 39.

"It is strange," agreed Holzer, 60. "It's interesting and fun, in a way."

The two picked no small case to switch sides. Har Sinai is perhaps the most debated development before a county hearing officer in years.

Holzer said the congregation asked him to help with its plan in fall 1997, when the synagogue was hoping to reach agreement with community leaders opposed to the plan.

"They knew I knew community issues," said Holzer, who has represented community groups opposing high-profile projects such the St. Timothy's School development in Stevenson and the Colvista project in Sparks.

Kaplow said he was pulled into the case on the opposite side when a friend asked him to help. Although his mother attends services at Har Sinai and he has represented developer John Colvin, a Har Sinai member helping steer the synagogue project, Kaplow agreed.

"I found the issues compelling," he said.

The hearing resumes today as Har Sinai continues to present its plans for the site.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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