Zoning official protests as private citizen in case She's against proposal to expand Sebring preschool


A county planning official and a lawyer who specializes in zoning cases battled last night over a proposal to allow first-graders to attend a Jewish preschool in the official's backyard.

Casting aside her official status as a planning board member, Joan Lancos was the disapproving neighbor last night, presenting the county Board of Appeals with photos of events at the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia's Sebring neighborhood.

Ms. Lancos said the photos showed that the center, known for its menorah-shaped sign on U.S. 29, was putting on events much larger than the limits promised when its zoning exception was granted in 1989.

After the photos were presented, the center's attorney, Richard B. Talkin, made his first of many objections, saying that some of the photos were not dated and were not valid evidence.

Ms. Lancos' attorney, David A. Carney, persuaded the board to accept the photos as evidence.

Ms. Lancos played excerpts of videotapes showing cars entering the center's driveway -- more, she said, than the neighborhood was led to believe would ever go there. School buses backed down the driveway, past Ms. Lancos' back yard, warning horns beeping like electronic alarm clocks.

For several years, she told the board, she felt that it would be inappropriate for her, as a county planning official, to file complaints with zoning authorities.

But, she said, faced with the center's request to add an elementary school with a potential enrollment of 60, she decided to fight back.

"The neighbors of Sebring have found that the [center] has not earned our trust. Even simple gentlemen's agreements have been broken," Ms. Lancos said, urging the board to withhold permission for the school until the center met its obligations under the 1989 zoning exception.

The Sebring Civic Association has voted to oppose the center's petition for the school.

At times, Ms. Lancos tried to direct the proceedings as she might have when she chaired the planning board recently.

During one argument over the admissibility of evidence, Ms. Lancos interrupted Mr. Talkin's protestations, saying, "Perhaps

we should hear my testimony and then decide whether it's relevant."

Mr. Carney, her lawyer, frequently had to slow down Ms. Lancos as she sped through her presentation.

She complied but warned, "I have my testimony timed. If we're here all night, it's not my fault."

After she finished her testimony, board members expressed some sympathy for Ms. Lancos' argument.

"I must say I'm surprised at the level of activity on the site," board member James A. Caldwell said. He added, however, that it appeared that the center had worked to satisfy neighbors' concerns over the years.

The board scheduled a Nov. 16 work session to decide the case.

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