Federal Suit Filed in Stevenson Chabad Case

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Rabbi Velvel Belinsky and his congregants pose on the property where the rabbi hopes to build a synagogue. (David Stuck)

Following two years of legal entanglements, an attorney representing a Chabad congregation that wants to build a synagogue on Stevenson Road filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland Tuesday against Baltimore County and the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Roman Storzer, a top attorney in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA), filed the lawsuit on behalf of Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian Jews.

The federal suit comes after lengthy Baltimore County Administrative and Board of Appeals hearings. Neighbors of the property in question — on the 8400 block of Stevenson Road in Pikesville — oppose construction of a synagogue, citing issues of pedestrian safety, traffic and the character of the neighborhood.

Two cases were heard simultaneously at both hearings: whether the proposed synagogue complied with regulations for setbacks that help blend a property with its surroundings; and whether the plan was consistent with a previous development plan for the property.

A split decision was issued in the administrative hearing, and the Board of Appeals ruled against the rabbi, who hopes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and classroom and office space. He planned to use the house on the property as a parsonage, where he and his four children would live (he is divorced).

The federal case alleges violations of RLUIPA, which allows synagogues to be built in residential areas as a right and protects religious institutions in a number of ways; the federal Fair Housing Act, since the Board of Appeals ruled that the rabbi couldn’t live in the house on the property; and the religious freedom and equal protection provisions of the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.

As a federal statute, RLUIPA trumps local zoning code, although it is not a “blank check,” Storzer said in a previous interview.

The suit alleges two things.

“First, it’s a challenge to the county ordinance which regulates places of worship, and we challenge them as being incredibly byzantine, confusing,” Storzer said. “It’s a regulatory scheme which causes great undue delay for a religious organization to be able to use a property as a church, temple [or synagogue] in Baltimore County.”

The other part challenges the Board of Appeals’ decision, which was announced in a public deliberation on Jan. 4.

The county has 21 days to respond to the suit.

Storzer recently filed a similar suit on behalf of Hunt Valley Baptist Church.

“Even though [religious] use is permitted by right or by special exception in the county,” he said, “neighbors can put up various road blocks to prevent the projects from happening.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

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