Hundreds of people packed a Baltimore County hearing room on Wednesday, June 24 for the first in a series of deliberations over a proposed Chabad-Lubavitch congregation to be built on a three-acre property just north of the 695 beltway on Stevenson Road.
Many neighborhood residents, some of whom sat on the floor and stood in the hallway, wore red T-shirts that said “Friends of Stevenson Road, Protecting Our Neighborhood.” The crowd was there to show opposition to The Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews led by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, which is proposing to build a 4,000-square-foot synagogue on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road.
While synagogues are allowed to be built in residential areas — a right that is protected by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — neighbors said they’d rather see houses built on the property than deal with a synagogue’s activity and traffic.
At the hearing, Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen heard arguments on the first of two issues — residential transition areas, or RTAs, which are buffers put in place to blend a building in with its surroundings and make it less visible from the road. The second issue, to be debated at a later date, is if Belinsky’s plans are compatible with a nearly decade-old development plan for the property that divided its three lots into five subdivisions. The synagogue would have 22 parking spaces in the back of the building and 88 seats in the sanctuary.
Belinsky’s attorney, Herbert Burgunder III, contended that the issue with the subdivisions was moot since no development plan has been filed by Belinsky (previous plans were scrapped). Burgunder called two witnesses, Stacey McArthur, a landscape architect at DS Thaler & Associates, who spoke about the RTAs, and Mickey Cornelius of The Traffic Group, who researched traffic patterns in the neighborhood.
The opposition was represented by three attorneys, two hired by residents, and one of whom is a resident. One attorney had been retained by Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), a resident who sported one of the red T-shirts at the hearing. Stein, who hired the lawyer with his wife and a neighboring couple, said he is acting as a homeowner and not a politician and that he cleared his involvement with the legislature’s ethics adviser.
Ken Abel, a neighborhood resident who has been one of the organizers of the opposition, believes the attorneys acting on the neighborhood’s behalf will show that there are legitimate problems with the synagogue’s plans.
“What they’re doing doesn’t comply with the rules,” he said.
Belinsky still believes he has a right to build his synagogue and his plans are compliant with county rules, but acknowledges that the opposition is hampering his progress.
“Because there are so many fierce [members of the opposition] and two separate attorneys hired by two separate groups opposed to us, it’s probably going to be a pretty lengthy and drawn-out trial,” he said ahead of the first hearing.
At the hearing, McArthur showed mock-ups of possible landscaping buffers and maps of what the landscaping would entail. Cornelius spoke about his research into the area’s traffic during which he determined the synagogue would not add a significant amount of traffic to Stevenson Road or decrease traffic safety. Following questioning by Burgunder, both witnesses were questioned by the other three attorneys.
The trial will continue at a later date that has not been set yet.