A planned expansion and renovation of the Harford Jewish Center near Havre de Grace has received a green light from a county zoning hearing examiner, which one of the congregation's leaders says should hopefully get the $1 million project back on track.
In an opinion issued Thursday, hearing examiner Robert Kahoe approved a variance to a 50-foot front yard setback requirement, so the planned addition can move forward.
The congregation had wanted to begin construction this summer on the project, which includes a 3,400-square-foot addition and improvements to the existing 14,000-square-foot building, including a new side entrance to access to the center's synagogue, Andrew Klein, one of the congregation leaders said Monday.
They have been delayed, however, because of the county government's insistence that they apply for a setback variance, which Klein and others in the congregation had argued wasn't necessary.
"It's unfortunate what we had to go through, but we think we can begin this fall and be done next spring, at least that's my hope," Klein said.
The center, built in the mid-1960s on 15 acres at the corner of Route 155 and Earlton Road, has approximately 180 families in its reformed congregation, according to Klein; however, not all of them are active, and one of the main thrusts of the expansion and renovation is to attract younger families with children who settle in the county and need a place for their children to receive Jewish religious instruction.
Klein, whose late parents were instrumental in founding the center, said the planned addition will allow them to get rid of two portable classrooms installed on the property in the early 2000s.
In addition to providing more classroom and office space with a new addition, Klein said they plan to renovate the center's existing classrooms and restrooms, make some upgrades to the worship area and gift shop and provide a new entrance so worshipers coming to services on Friday evening or Saturday don't have to come in through a kitchen when they park in the lot at the rear of the building.
Security upgrades are also planned for the center's classroom area, which is used for a nondenominational pre-school during the week, Klein said.
"We've been a part of the fabric of the community for over 100 years — doctors, lawyers, accountants, haberdashers, business people," he said. "This project is designed to strengthen both the congregation and our religious school and to help us attract young families."
Klein said the center provides religious instruction for children from kindergarten through their junior year in high school, when they can become confirmed members of the congregation.
He said he and other congregation leaders were flummoxed that county government officials made them go through the zoning variance process, particularly because prior additions in the 1990s into the early 2000s received building permits with no questions raised about encroaching into the same 50-foot setback area.
"The county really put us through the wringer," he said.
According to the record of the variance hearing before Kahoe on July 23, Klein raised that very point about no building permits ever being withheld in the past.
Klein testified the prior encroachments into the setback area apparently started because the State Highway Administration widened that section of Route 155 after the original building was constructed and the right-of-way for the road is much wider there than along any other portion of the highway. He also explained that with the modular classrooms needing to go, they could only be replaced by adding on to the center's classroom area.
"We're a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization and this never came up from the county before," said Klein, whose family owns the Klein's ShopRite supermarkets throughout Harford County and elsewhere in the region, in discussing his hearing testimony. "I mean, we aren't building a gas station or a supermarket here. There would be no attributable impact at all, since we are building where the portable classrooms are already sitting."
Some of the site plans submitted to the were "in error," county administration spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Tuesday.
"They showed the building set back from the property line by 120 ft., which is well outside the required 50 ft. buffer," she explained in a written statement. "However, the plans submitted for the new addition showed that the existing building was in fact located inside the 50-foot buffer zone, which by law required a variance."
"The law must apply equally to everyone," the statement continued. "The county executive does not pick and choose who has to follow the law. However, we work with our customers to provide efficient service, and in this case the administration supported the variance and it was quickly approved."
The hearing examiner's opinion states that from the testimony of Klein and Gary Getz, a congregation member and the project architect, it was clear that "Harford Jewish Center will suffer an extreme difficulty if the variance is not granted, as the county will issue no permits until this is corrected."
"A variance will correct such difficulty," the opinion continues. "The relief requested is the minimum necessary to alleviate the difficulty and no adverse impact would result if the variance is granted."
There was no opposition to the variance from the county Department of Planning and Zoning, or from the general public, according to the hearing record. Klein said they were thankful that Kahoe, the hearing examiner, gave such a fast turnaround on submitting his opinion.
Because the addition is less than 5,000 square feet, Klein said they won't have to go through the development advisory committee review process, which would could tack on several more months of delay. It likely will be subject to stormwater management review, he said, adding: "We're hoping for a fast decision."
Klein said he and several other members have made pledges which were in turn used to secure financing from Harford Bank, but continued delays might cause some of those who pledged to reconsider.
"We really can't wait another four or five months," he said. "We do a lot for this community; we have our Martin Luther King Day programs, we support many community organization and charities. To this point, we haven't gotten much help out of the [county] government."