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Berman gets its wish Council OKs purchase of Rockville site

Washington Jewish Week

The Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy's search for a permanent home appears to have ended successfully, and its boosters are ecstatic.

The decisive moment arrived Tuesday afternoon when the Montgomery County Council voted 8-1 to grant the school's request to purchase the Rockville site it has occupied since 1998.

The issue now goes before the state Board of Public Works, the final public body to consider the issue. County Executive Isiah Leggett has also endorsed the sale. Several observers said it is likely that the state board will also approve the sale. As of press time Tuesday, it was not known when the BPW is scheduled to consider the matter.

Judging by the exuberant reaction of Berman supporters in the council chambers, many of them regard state approval as a foregone conclusion. When the near-unanimous vote was taken, outgoing council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At-Large), shouted "mazel tov!"

The school's backers, constituting virtually all of the attendees, leaped to a standing ovation punctuated by hugs and backslaps.

"It's been an amazing journey," Daphna Raskas, Berman's board president, said immediately following the vote. "This is really a historic moment. It's been a long wait, but it's been worth it."

"This feels like a big thorn that's been taken out of my side," added Rockville developer Dennis Berman, who personally oversaw the renovation of the school's property on Arctic Avenue in Rockville. The school is named after Berman's father.

"We are elated," said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

A number of gleeful students were also in attendance, absorbing a civics lesson as part of their history studies. "We're glad we can stay in our own building," said one of them, Dana Kovrin of Silver Spring.

"Originally, I didn't think we'd get the vote," added classmate Noah Zwillinger, also a Silver Spring resident. "Now this can really pave the way for future generations of students."

The property in question is the former Peary High School, which was vacated in 1988 and soon fell into severe disrepair, becoming a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood eyesore.

Ownership of the derelict parcel was transferred to Montgomery County in 1994, and two years later, the school signed a 25-year lease with the county that obligated the new tenant to rehabilitate the site, which it did at a cost of about $9 million.

The lease gave the school the option to buy the property at any time during the term of the lease, but opponents said Berman should not be able to exercise that right because the site might someday be needed for public school purposes.

That was one of the key points made by the lone council holdout, Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). In explaining his position, Andrews said that although Berman has been "an excellent tenant and neighbor," a sale of the 20-acre property is "not in the county's long-term interest" because it could eventually be a choice site for a "holding school" -- a facility that is temporarily used by students while their home school is being modernized.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large) initially appeared to be the other "no" vote. He complained that he was suffering "real heartburn" over an aspect of the proposed sale agreement that enables the county to repurchase the property from the academy if the county demonstrates there is a valid public need for the site.

Elrich objected to a provision of the proposal that would enable a judge to review the county's finding of need. He claimed that it would make it more difficult for the county to reaquire the property. Diane Schwartz-Jones, speaking for Leggett's office, disagreed, maintaining that judicial review represents "a very low threshold" of proof for the county to clear.

"This is one of the more difficult decisions we've had to make; it could have gone either way," Elrich continued, noting that the sale agreement, although deeply flawed, is more beneficial to the county in some respects than is the current lease. "This is not wildly in the public interest, but I reluctantly support it." The crowd applauded heartily.

Berman representatives had maintained that preventing the school from exercising its right to buy property was a breach of contract.

Noting that, council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac) told the attendees and his colleagues, "This comes down to an issue of honor. Will our county honor its word?"

The county had effectively forfeited its right to the property, said Nancy Navarro (D-Kemp Mill, Aspen Hill, White Oak), when it abandoned the site and allowed it to become a filthy, dilapidated shell -- until Berman fixed it up and eliminated a community eyesore.

"For many people, the academy addressed a need and solved an incredible longstanding problem," Navarro said in closing, prompting yet another ovation from the audience.

Article published here.


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