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Woodmont property back in spotlight as conditional use hearings conclude

After a nearly year-long hiatus, the future of the former Woodmont Academy site in Cooksville is once again up for debate. 

After deciding to withdraw a comprehensive rezoning request for the property last June, members of the Dar-us-Salaam community are now requesting the county grant a conditional use that would allow them to build an Islamic Community Center on the 66-acre site, which would include a private school, mosque and dwellings for center staff. 

The proposal has generated controversy among Cooksville residents, who say the center would bring heavier traffic and disrupt the rural character of the community. 

The project's fate is now in the hands of county Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre, who will decide whether or not to grant the conditional use. 

Thursday night, in closing arguments before LeFaivre, lawyers from both sides addressed the topic of what constitutes an appropriate level of development in the rural west. 

Although Dar-us-Salaam attorney Sang Oh called only two witnesses and said the conditional use petition and the county's technical staff report comprehensively covered the rest of the Dar-us-Salaam community's arguments, he did make a closing statement.

Oh said the county's zoning laws for rural districts allow for a host of more intensive conditional uses, in his view, than a religious center -- including machinery repair centers, mulching operations and lawn and gardening centers.

"The reality is that farming is not the only use in the rural west," he said. "There are schools, homes and, of course, there are, in fact, churches."

Oh said the site's 66 acres provided ample space for the proposed buildings and asserted that traffic leaving the center would not cause back-ups, based on the testimony of traffic engineer Mickey Cornelius, who conducted a traffic study for Dar-us-Salaam. 

He said Dar-us-Salaam wanted to be a part of the Cooksville community. 

"We all want good things in life," he said. "The rural west is rich in heritage, tradition and values, and the petitioners in this case… are coming to join this tradition and not to destroy it."

But attorney Joan Becker, who represents the Residents for the Responsible Development of Woodmont -- a community nonprofit formed to fight heavier development on the site than was initially approved -- said the "overall intensity and scale of uses are not appropriate for this site.

"If the conditional use is approved, it will destroy everything that everyone has worked so hard to build," she said, citing the testimony of a Cooksville resident against the Islamic Center.   

Becker argued that the conditional use petition was severely flawed in some areas, including what she said was a lack of specificity about the center's architecture, ability to be supported by existing well and septic systems and other details, including lighting and full ingress and egress plans. 

And Becker said she felt her clients "were denied the fundamental right of due process of law in these proceedings" because of Oh's decision to rely on the staff report and conditional petition as testimony. 

"No matter how hard I try, I can't cross-examine a piece of paper," she said.

LeFaivre said she has "concerns about the case" and will need to re-examine the evidence before making a decision.  

"I have a lot of questions that I’m not sure have been answered to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the law," she said.

LeFaivre will likely release a written final decision within the next 30 days. The case can then be appealed to the county's Board of Appeals if one of the parties is unsatisfied with her ruling.  

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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