Worship-free zones?; Har Sinai: Plans would seem to improve an old dump, but it's just the latest religious controversy.


PLACES OF worship used to be considered integral to a community. In some suburban communities, however, churches and synagogues now sometimes are derided as intrusive. Neighbors say these institutions -- some much larger than the places they replace -- will alter the look and feel of their surroundings.

The issue arose in recent years when Baltimore's historic Bethel A.M.E. Church wanted to build in Baltimore County; when Riverdale Baptist, a 2,000-member congregation in Prince George's County, sought to move to southern Anne Arundel; and when First Baptist Church of Guilford proposed a new sanctuary-community center, which the Howard County Board of Appeals approved last fall amid controversy -- and then inexplicably rejected this month.

Har Sinai, founded in 1842 and the United States' oldest continuous Reform Jewish congregation, is the latest to encounter resistance. It wants to build a 65,000-square-foot complex on 17 acres at Greenspring and Walnut avenues in a part of northwest Baltimore County that many consider rural. Opponents contend Har Sinai would draw too much traffic, siphon off nearby wells and discharge more sewage than its septic system could handle.

Whether these arguments have merit is for the Baltimore County zoning hearing officer to decide by next month. But recent hearings suggest the project would vastly improve an old trash dump. Contrary to arguments that Har Sinai would be out of place, the structure, by design, would be barely visible from the road.

Other large campuses for the Jewish Community Center and Maryland Public Television headquarters are less than 2 miles from the proposed synagogue site.

Greenspring Valley was compromised a generation ago when farms were diced into 2- and 3-acre residential lots. With more people moving to these areas, religious, civic and commercial structures inevitably follow.

As these conflicts crop up, both sides will have to give a little. Congregations may have to scale back desires for grand facilities. And residents must realize they can't bar institutions formerly regarded as the hearts of communities.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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