The debate over a proposed Chabad Lubavitch synagogue in the 8400 block of Stevenson Road turned to focusing on limitations due to the property’s location during the third hearing on Aug. 12.
Witnesses testified for more than four hours at the Office of Administrative Hearings in Towson about physical elements of the proposal that included parking, traffic and environmental concerns.
Attorney J. Carroll Holzer, representing the residents, began by questioning Rabbi Velvel Belinsky about the need for a building that can accommodate three times the current size of his congregation, Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue.
“What bothers me a little bit, rabbi, is the fact that the Chabad, where you currently are, serves another part of the community that is growing,” Holzer said to Belinsky. “And I can’t imagine buying this land, building this building if there’s no anticipation that you could like to see more folks of Russian descent utilize your services and your activities.”
Belinsky responded by stating he did anticipate a growing number of congregants but that 22 parking spaces would meet the synagogue’s current needs. The congregation would be 4,000 square feet and seat 88. Belinsky has been operating his congregation, made up primarily of Russian Jews, out of Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s Chabad on Old Pimlico Road. He said High Holiday services draw hundreds every year, but they rent a space.
“If I am planning to have an event that is more than 88 people, we plan to have it elsewhere,” Belinsky said in response to a question about holding events such as High Holiday services.
Deborah Katzen, a resident on nearby Topping Road, has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, including part of her childhood, and testified about the dangers of walking in the 1970s.
“When I grew up, my mom didn’t let me walk on Stevenson Road,” she said. “I rode my bike because [walking] was too dangerous. My parents drove me to school because they didn’t want me to walk to school.”
In 1977 after getting off a bus, Katzen was hit by a car that had skidded 20 feet. Now a mother of 4-year- old twins, she worries about sections of the road that are narrower.
“If a child is playing outside or running outside, there is no room for error,” she said. “There is no skidding 20 feet, there is no 20 feet.”
When asked by opposing attorney Herbert Burgunder whether she would object to a house on the proposed site, Katzen said she would not but that a Chabad would not make sense in a neighborhood with no sidewalks.
“The idea of having a building that would include 22 parking spaces is a little daunting to me,” she said. “I really do hope we get a synagogue somewhere, I just don’t think this is the right place for it.”
Several members of the group Friends of Stevenson Road that opposes the development packed the hearing room including Jessamyn Abel, one of its leaders. She maintains the use of the 8400 block as a synagogue goes against the residential use it was originally zoned for.
“It’s been touching to hear the testimony of many of the neighbors and how we have all expressed a concern for safety and the maintenance of the bucolic nature of Stevenson as a neighborhood,” she said.
Among those who also testified to the dangers of Stevenson Road were Maryland State Delegates Dana Stein and Dan Morhaim.
Toward the end of the hearing civil engineer Ben Soleimani, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, testified to the physical attributes of the property. His main concern stemmed from the proximity of a tributary of the Jones Falls, which is prone to erosion. Soleimani has lived at his home on Gardenview Road since 2004 and said Baltimore County officials determined long ago that the problems of runoff and erosion could not be solved. He agreed with their assessment.
“Based on the work I’ve done, I don’t see sufficient room to do stormwater management,” he said.
After about 20 minutes of testimony, Burgunder raised an objection that Soleimani was not licensed to perform stormwater management evaluations by the state of Maryland.
“He’s drawing conclusions that require performing surveys, understanding what a stormwater management plan is for the property,” he said. “He’s suggesting frankly to your honor that there is no stormwater management plan and that’s frankly not the truth.”
Judge John Beverungen overruled the objection and allowed the testimony to continue. When Burgunder cross-examined Soleimani, he asked him why there was no stormwater management plan for Chizuk Amuno to which the engineer answered that the property’s age precluded it from this type of planning. Soleimani added that this part of Stevenson Road is much flatter than the proposed site for the Chabad, which includes a 20-foot drop in elevation.
“[Chizuk Amuno has] more open area and it has more pavement,” he said. “The runoff is caught through the whole perimeter of the property because it’s next to 695.”
After the hearing Belinsky said in an interview with the JT he is confident Beverungen will approve the plan. He thinks that there is a misconception that all of his congregants are observant Jews who do not drive on Shabbat.
“They (the opposition) are basing their position on the assumption that everyone who comes walks,” he said.
Belinsky referred to people who had testified during the hearing who walked or witnessed others walking on Stevenson Road, including some who walk to Chizuk Amuno.”
“People walk now, they jog, they walk their dogs,” he said. “A couple more people are going to be walking? I don’t see how it impacts the area. Why does everyone think it’s OK to walk to Chizuk Amuno and not to us?”