Facing fierce community opposition and wrestling with plans to clean up a site stained with potentially hazardous pollutants, the historic Har Sinai congregation today is to ask a Baltimore County hearing officer to approve its plans for a synagogue and school in rural Worthington Valley.
Har Sinai, the nation's oldest Reform Jewish congregation, wants to move from Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore to fast-growing northwest Baltimore County to be closer to many of its members. But 17 neighborhood groups have complained that a religious center with a banquet hall and day care facilities would clog the area's narrow roads and foul neighboring wells.
Residents also are concerned that the temple would be built atop an abandoned dump where PCBs and other contaminants have been found.
"We don't know what to worry about first," said Rachel Hess, a spokeswoman for the Worthington Woodsyde Association, a group representing more than 100 households. "It's a lot to worry about."
The vehement opposition has prompted county officials to take the unusual step of scheduling the eight days of hearings that start today.
Last February, the congregation closed a deal to buy a parcel at Greenspring and Walnut avenues for $500,000. Its would-be neighbors say that while they would welcome a synagogue to the community, the proposed 65,000-square-foot religious center is too large for the 17-acre site.
The project would include classrooms for Hebrew school sessions and space for a nursery school that would be open weekdays, said Harold Burgin, a Baltimore lawyer who is president of Har Sinai.
The religious center would rely on wells that would draw about 1,750 gallons of water a day, and a septic system that neighbors fear might pollute area ground water. Also, residents say the center would bring another 1,000 car trips a day to congested roads.
The proposal has become one of the more hotly contested development battles in recent years in the county, with more than 500 residents turning out for a series of community meetings. Opponents have purchased full-page advertisements in community newspapers, asking: "Is this smart growth?"
Burgin said he was surprised by the increasing vehemence of the opposition. He said congregation officials met with community leaders three times before buying the property last year.
"At no time did anyone ever say, 'Go away, we don't want you here no matter what, find another property,' " he said.
The congregation, Burgin said, agreed to slightly reduce the building's size and to screen it from surrounding homes. He said Har Sinai would clean up a derelict site that had been used as a dump for decades.
"The community gets a cleaner, prettier site," he said. "We get to continue to educate children, and adults, for that matter."
Har Sinai is forming a plan to excavate large portions of the property and remove contaminants, said Robert W. Sheesley, an environmental consultant to the congregation. Studies have found polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and metals such as arsenic on the site.
The Maryland Department of the Environment is reviewing the congregation's environmental studies to decide whether the property should be deemed a hazardous waste site subject to a state-supervised cleanup or subject only to county regulations.
Sheesley, the congregation's consultant, said he's seen nothing to warrant a ruling that the site is hazardous, although he said the congregation has been surprised by the amount of trash on the site.
He said cleanup is shaping up to be more costly than had been expected, in part because Har Sinai officials have decided to remove contaminated soil.
"It's going to be a lot of money," Sheesley said, but he refused to estimate the cost of the cleanup.
Some county geological maps show that a stream buried by dump fill might bisect the building site. County officials have warned Har Sinai that it would not be allowed to build next to the stream. But Sheesley said his studies show that no stream exists.
Har Sinai officials have begun removing automobile bodies, tires, concrete blocks and other debris from the dump site. Some areas of the property are encircled with yellow caution tape to prevent workers from stumbling across tiles and pipes that appear to contain asbestos.
While most of the debris is environmentally harmless trash, residents were alarmed to discover that the site is contaminated.
Sheesley said Har Sinai's tests have shown that the pollutants have not found their way to ground water, and pose no danger to the community. Subsequent testing has found no other traces of PCBs, Sheesley said.
Burgin said the congregation is committed to making the site safe.
Pub Date: 2/08/99