A Columbia Jewish education center, locked in a battle with neighbors over its plans to operate a religious school, packed a Board of Appeals hearing last night, far outnumbering opponents.
But one neighbor and opponent, county Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Lancos, came armed with David A. Carney, one of the most experienced zoning attorneys in the county.
Mr. Carney grilled the director of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education, Rabbi Hillel M. Baron, for an hour on his plans.
Mrs. Lancos said she hired Mr. Carney in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in her opposition to the center's request and her duties on the Planning Board, which reviewed the case and recommended approval Aug. 31.
The prolonged questioning of Rabbi Baron forced the tentative scheduling of a second night of hearings, Nov. 2 in the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City. None of the opponents got a chance to testify last night.
Residents of the 73-home Sebring neighborhood have opposed the center ever since it applied for the zoning exception it was granted in 1989. Since then, they have complained that the center violated the terms of its exception by failing to provide proper landscaping and by having major events that caused traffic problems.
The center is located on 4 acres overlooking U.S. 29 and Broken Land Parkway, and is allowed to operate a preschool on the property. Last year, it got into trouble because it provided a first grade for two pupils, prompting neighbors to complain that the center violated its zoning exception.
County planners then asked the board for a clarification of the center's zoning exception.
But the center argued that being restricted to a preschool violated its constitutional right to free exercise of religion and asked the board to allow the first grade to continue operating.
The board refused, and last night the center was back asking for another special exception to allow an elementary school that could someday teach 60 children in addition to the 30 children allowed in the preschool.
One board member suggested last night that the center's proposal might work better if it were developed gradually.
Board member George Caldwell told Rabbi Baron he was concerned about where on the property, which includes an old single-family house, the center would be able to house 60 additional children.
But Mr. Caldwell suggested to Rabbi Baron that the board might require the center to phase in its higher grades over several years.