Marking the end of an eight-year saga, Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and the ARIEL Jewish Community Center and Synagogue recently reached a settlement in their land-use discrimination lawsuit against Baltimore County.
“We can now move forward with the plans for a synagogue, a home for our community and a place that will be a beacon of light for all in the area,” Belinsky said in a statement.
The ARIEL Jewish Community Center and Synagogue is a Chabad congregation serving the local Eastern European Jewish community. Eight years ago, they applied to the county for permission to construct a two-story synagogue on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road.
Situated on a three acre plot, the proposed 4,000-square-foot facility would include an 88-seat sanctuary, social hall, small kitchen, and a basement with classroom and office space on three acres. An existing home on the property would be used for the rabbi’s residence.
While religious institutions are generally allowed to situate themselves in residential areas, local jurisdictions may deny projects based on local zoning regulations or if the jurisdiction can prove a “compelling interest,” such as “some substantial threat to public safety, peace, or order,” according to the Land Use Provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA.
At the same time, this federal law prohibits a local government from applying zoning laws or regulations in a way that substantially burdens religious exercise without a compelling justification pursued through the least restrictive means. Religious uses cannot be treated less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions; and discrimination based on religion or religious denomination is also not allowed. When there is a conflict between RLUIPA and the zoning code or how it is applied, as a federal civil rights law RLUIPA actually takes precedence.
Neighborhood opposition to ARIEL’s construction plan was swift and gained momentum as county hearings proceeded. Hundreds signed petitions and opponents attended hearings in red T-shirts printed “Friends of Stevenson Road, Protecting Our Neighborhood.” Although the neighborhood includes the large Chizuk Amuno synagogue and school complex, about three blocks from the proposed ARIEL synagogue, neighbors opposed the congregation setting up shop on a residentially-zoned parcel, citing issues including traffic, noise, lighting, stormwater concerns and the project’s size.
After a series of 10 hearings and appeals, in January 2017 the Baltimore County Board of Appeals denied the application. The board cited a lack of compliance with zoning regulations requiring “residential transition areas” (RTAs), which provide a transitional buffer to the surrounding neighborhood. Additionally, the congregation’s plan was not “not consistent with the spirit and intent” of an earlier development plan for the property.
In response, in April 2017 the attorney for the congregation filed a lawsuit against Baltimore County and the Baltimore County Board of Appeals in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. The suit charged that the county and appeals board violated ARIEL’s civil rights through “burdensome, discriminatory and unreasonable land use regulations and intentional conduct that have prohibited and continue to prohibit the Plaintiffs from using” the property.
Belinsky credits County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr.’s administration for recognizing ARIEL’s RLUIPA lawsuit and others pending against the county and getting them moving — in the case of ARIEL, settling the suit and compensating the congregation “for the damages incurred.” Belinsky was unable to comment on the amount of the settlement or whether it would go toward purchasing another property to pursue construction of a synagogue. (The congregation had to sell the property on Stevenson Road as the hearings dragged on for years.)
Neighbors still feel their concerns about the synagogue project were valid and would oppose any institutional project of the same scale on that site, according to someone familiar with the ARIEL project.
Baltimore County did not respond immediately for request for comment on the settlement.
Belinsky and his congregation are looking for a new property in the Pikesville area, “and we hope that the county has learned its lesson and it will not make us any problems,” he said. “Now, the second time around, we have a substantial reason to believe that they learned this lesson.”