Their name means "community of peace," but as members of Adat Shalom, a Rockville Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, prepare to build a synagogue near the Carderock Springs enclave of Bethesda, they face a neighborhood divided.
Despite months of opposition by some area residents, the congregation closed the deal last week on the purchase of five acres at Persimmon Tree Lane and Kachina Lane.
Still lining the quiet, stately street of Persimmon Tree Lane are picket signs with scenes of traffic and pollution and of bulldozers knocking over trees. On the back of the anonymously placed signs are large black letters: "N-O." The signs are remnants of an organized effort by neighbors who want to keep a religious institution out of their established residential area. Some residents said they fear the synagogue would decrease property values, increase traffic to the neighborhood and ruin the character of the area. "I don't think anyone in the neighborhood would have thought that this could happen," said Barbara Manzano, 56, a vice president of the Carderock Springs Citizens Association.
"In the almost 30 years I have lived here, we have been undisturbed. Now a huge pro- ject is popping up in our back yards, and we have no recourse under current zoning law to stop it."
Syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, 73, whose property is adjacent to the proposed site, said that he offered to help Adat Shalom find an alternative location and raise money for additional costs.
"I moved here because it was a picturesque little community in the county that was secluded and private," he said. "People who buy property in secluded areas certainly don't want a parking lot next door. I had no idea the county laws allowed this."
He said he worries that the increased traffic would endanger his grandchildren and other children and believes that the setting of Hermon Presbyterian Church should be preserved.
"This area, by its very nature, is probably one of the most inappropriate areas in the whole county for a big, functioning church or synagogue," Anderson said. "Even though they closed on the sale, we will continue to try and block construction. Just because they have their foot in the door doesn't mean they'll get their leg in and the rest in."
The Carderock Springs conflict is at the crux of a countywide debate over whether zoning regulations are strict enough for religious institutions in residential areas.
Under current county zoning laws, religious institutions -- including social halls, libraries, day-care centers and classrooms -- are permitted in residential and agricultural areas. Other institutional uses in those zones must be approved through a special exception process, Montgomery Planning Board officials said.
In 1993, the County Council asked the planning board to study the compatibility of religious institutions with their neighbors and to propose changes to the zoning laws. The planning board found that Montgomery has less regulation than many other communities in the area and across the nation.
The amendments under consideration would increase the county's role in regulating the size and landscape of religious institutions and increase the number of parking spaces required. The changes also would allow for a more strict review process of larger religious institutions. In some cases where there is neighborhood conflict, a special exception process including a public hearing would be required.
On Aug. 1, the county planning board postponed for 60 days its decision on whether to propose the changes to the County Council.
Adat Shalom president Robert Barkin said that placing more restrictions on religious institutions ultimately would have a negative effect on the surrounding communities.
"This discussion comes at a time when there is such a need for religious institutions to fill in the gap in society and provide so much for the people," he said. "How can we do this if we are faced with all of these zoning hassles that drain our energy?"
Barkin said he never anticipated that the building of a synagogue could be such a divisive issue in a community. "People want to go to a religious institution in a residential area, but no one wants it in their residential area," he said. "These things cannot exist in virtual reality. They have to be somewhere."
The property, at 7800 Kachina Lane, is currently the tree-shaded site of a single family home with a guest house and tennis courts. It is adjacent to Hermon Presbyterian Church, a small white church house built around 1874 with an attached graveyard, according to the Montgomery County Historical Society.
The 215-family Adat Shalom congregation has been meeting in rented facilities in its eight-year existence and was happy to find a place for a permanent home, said Barkin, 44, of Bethesda.
He said that the synagogue searched for a location for three years and that members were charmed by the character of the Carderock Springs area. The congregation, which now rents space in the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, has members from Northwest Washington, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County.
In the spring, when the Carderock Springs Citizens' Association learned of the plans for the synagogue, it voted to oppose it. Residents sent out newsletters explaining their plans and collected $5,000 for legal expenses, Manzano said. But residents who support the synagogue said they are being overshadowed and intimidated by people from the more vocal opposition. Many who support the synagogue did not want their names printed for fear they would be shunned by neighbors.
"I find it real objectionable what they are trying to do to a religious institution," one woman said. "The people who would come to the services are coming for a dignified reason and will act in a dignified manner. It's not like they will be rowdy and disrespectful. I think the opposition is way out of line. They are antagonizing the neighborhood."
Residents who oppose the synagogue said they are not against the proposed religious use, but they don't feel their neighborhood can handle the scope of the project. "I'm not actively for it or against it," said Marvin Ebitz, 72. "I'm Jewish, and I don't even know why the congregation would want to be here. It's too small and isolated for what they want and need to do."
Although the congregation has approval for use of the land under the county zoning code, it must meet the county's building codes during construction. Manzano said the opposition will be scrutinizing each step.
Plans for the site would keep the existing house and many trees. Preliminary design plans show a campus of low buildings, including a 250-seat sanctuary, a social hall with a kitchen and classrooms. A parking lot will be built for 75 cars. Barkin said members of the congregation would be asked to use the Bradley Boulevard entrance onto Persimmon Tree Road to limit traffic on side streets.
One Carderock Springs resident and member of the congregation said she thinks the synagogue will enhance the community.
"It's hard for people to think that members of the congregation will cooperate with the concerns of the neighbors," said Miriam Freilicher, 55. "They will see we are a very special group of people." CAPTION: Some Carderock Springs residents, unhappy with the notion of a synagogue being built in their neighborhood, have expressed themselves with signs, such as these on Kachina Lane.