Too Far in Towson?

The Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Towson and Goucher. (David Stuck photo)

A story about the potential demolition of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Towson and Goucher has made headlines in recent weeks, as it was slated to be razed next month. But Friends of Lubavitch, which owns the property in question at 14 Aigburth Road in Towson, are still fighting to keep the center intact and have filed another appeal. The tear-down order was first issued in April 2017 for the structure to be removed by March 1 of this year.

The tear-down order came after the court ruled that the building violates a restrictive setback covenant that forbid the building to be constructed where it now stands. In addition, the court said, Friends of Lubavitch is in violation of zoning codes that don’t allow the house, originally permitted as a residence, to be used as a community center.

It’s just the latest volley in the longtime property dispute between the FOL and the Aigburth neighbors, who are deeply divided over not only the end result, but even about how the process unfolded. And neither side is ready to concede defeat.

The Situation

Ten years ago, Rabbi Mendy Rivkin and his wife, Sheiny, moved to Towson to open a Chabad Center with a mission to serve Jewish students. A couple months after coming to Towson, they moved into a modest, two-story brick home in the Aigburth Manor neighborhood, purchased by Friends of Lubavitch. The choice of the Aigburth Road home was ideal, as the street ends about a half-block away at York Road and the university’s front lawn.

Rivkin had done his homework, crunching demographics and data. He chose Towson for its student population, the proximity to the airport, as well as nearby Jewish day schools in Baltimore, to which the couple planned to send their own children.

“I observed that the most vulnerable and most impactful time for Jews is when they’re in college,” Rivkin said. “It’s the first time they’re kind of spreading their wings and they’re asking questions for themselves.”

Between 2008 and 2014, the Rivkin family and the Jewish student community grew at the Chabad Center. Shabbat dinners became a standing-room-only affair with students crammed in the small home’s dining room and spilling into the kitchen. The Rivkins wanted to expand. Their dream was a space for not only Shabbat dinners, but a big kitchen where Sheiny could bake challah with students, a larger dining room, study and worship areas and more bedrooms. Since moving in, the family has grown to seven children.

Sheiny and Rabbi Mendy Rivkin with their twins, Levi and Zalmen. (David Stuck photo)

“We’ve seen continued growth,” he said of the Chabad community. “Towson has grown as a school and it’s gotten more popular with the Jewish community.” Jewish families in the neighborhood occasionally attend events or require the rabbi for funerals, bris ceremonies or hospital, hospice or senior visits.

Meanwhile, during those six years, when the home was functioning as a Chabad Center, neighbors, including the Zolls next door at 16 Aigburth Road, said they took a “live-and-let-live attitude” and did not complain about the house being used for a purpose outside of its residential zoning designation.

In 2014, Rivkin held a meetings with neighbors about his plans to expand. Neighbors and the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, Inc. asked that the structure accord with the size and appearance of Aigburth Manor, a 135-home community incorporated in 1951, with some homes that date to the 1800s.

Neighbors were also worried about noise, traffic and trash that a larger, more institutional facility would bring. The area already has, within a block or two of the Chabad Center, an assisted living facility, multi-unit homes, an apartment complex, Towson High School grounds, a church and a senior apartment complex.

The Rivkins held a groundbreaking in June 2014. The expansion plans that Rivkin and FOL first submitted to the county were for a three-story parsonage of about 6,600 square feet, triple the size of the existing home, according to court documents.

“We changed the height of the building, we changed the facade of the building to accommodate the neighbors. It looks like a residential building,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland.

Originally rejected for a building permit as a parsonage, the same plans were resubmitted to the county in 2016 as a residence, and a building permit was approved. But the approval included a caveat from the administrative law judge that FOL proceed with construction “at its own risk,” recognizing neighbors’ testimony that the property was used for religious purposes and not just as a residence.

“If for whatever reason this Order is reversed, Petitioner would be required to return the subject property to its original condition,” court records said.

Neighbors were not happy with what some saw as a manipulation of the county process, but plans moved ahead and excavation began in June 2016.

Paul Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, Inc. (Photo provided)

“We submitted, at that hearing, huge amounts of evidence that the current house was being used as a community center and the plans were to expand it and have more people coming there,” said Paul Hartman, vice president of Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, Inc.

Subsequently, the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County ruled in September 2017 that FOL had been using the 14 Aigburth Road property “as a community center without having obtained the necessary approvals or complying with the necessary regulations.”

The opinion said that FOL manipulated the system and the natural inclination “to defer to religious organizations” and added that the organization “acted in bad faith in obtaining the building permit and constructing the addition.”

“Whatever they would have told us, this is the way it’s got to be, that’s what we would have done,” Kaplan said. “We have a right to be there. If it’s a parsonage, we have a right. If it’s a synagogue, we have a right. We have a right to be there. We weren’t doing anything inappropriate or nefarious, and [the county] said, ‘We know what you’re doing, we understand it, call it a residence.’”

(David Stuck photo)

During excavation, but prior to construction, one of the association members was researching deeds and found a setback covenant was still in effect on the 14 Aigburth Road property. This covenant stipulated that the front setback of the house to the street had to be about 115 feet. Rivkin’s plans would place the building about half that distance to the street.

Next-door neighbor Robin Zoll said FOL could have stopped construction at that point, but Rivkin said he would have lost money on contractors and materials, so they continued. Kaplan said everyone advised them to keep building despite the covenant’s setback restriction.

“The judge who heard the case for a stop-work order, when we were in the middle of construction, refused to give a stop-work order and said, ‘Whatever it is, they’ll work it out,’” he said. “If the judge thought it was a serious issue, he would have said, ‘Stop work.’”

With delays in court proceedings, by the time the association got to court to get a ruling on the covenant, the new Chabad Center was finished.

But the dispute was far from over.

The Neighbors

Robin Zoll and her husband live next-door to the Chabad Center at 16 Aigburth Road, where they’ve been for about 35 years. Zoll, a retired lawyer, was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to stop construction.

She said that after the Rivkins moved into the original house, and prior to Rivkin’s plans for the expansion, she paid little attention to what was going on there.

“We all knew, and especially me because I’m right next-door, that they had this operation with the students and they were doing their thing,” Zoll said. “And that was fine. I didn’t pay any attention at all to them until … we got to the point after years of talking, when they were actually starting to dig.”

In addition to the covenant and zoning violations, Zoll opposed the construction because, as she said in court proceedings, the building was out of character with the “quiet residential enclave,” impacting her family’s “use and enjoyment of their property” including by blocking the view and devaluing the home.

The Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Towson and Goucher, right, and the Zoll home, left, figure in a property dispute in Aigburth Manor in Towson. (David Stuck photo)

“I don’t know what value to put on the use and enjoyment of this property,” she told the court. “I would say priceless.… It’s really, really been devastating to us.”

Meanwhile, Zoll said she and her family are very concerned about a video produced by FOL that ascribes the neighbors’ opposition to anti-Semitism. In fact, Zoll said, neighbors’ concerns were with land use, not religious expression.

“We’re not going to be deterred by religious slurs and by this campaign, this defamatory campaign,” she said.

Hartman called the whole situation unfortunate and unnecessary.

“Delay, delay, delay and once it’s built no one’s ever going to ask them to tear it down, I think was the strategy,” Hartman said. “And it’s really sad, because nobody wins. I’d hate to see it torn down, because it’s such a waste. It’s a waste of money, a waste of time, effort, legal fees. If they had just spent the money to buy a vacant lot somewhere that was already zoned correctly and built it there, they’d have a Chabad house and not be controversial.”

The Rabbi

Rabbi Rivkin and his wife say they just want to serve the Jewish community, specifically the students at Towson University, who need a home away from home. He said that whenever the neighbors and association asked for changes, he made them, although neighbors disagree.

A request from FOL to tear down the old home and move the new structure back to satisfy the setback were also denied by the court because the structure would still be in violation of residential zoning.

Rabbi Mendy and Sheiny Rivkin (David Stuck photo)

“As a religious organization, we tried very hard to accommodate our neighbors,” Rivkin said. “We went through tremendous financial cost to accommodate them. Nobody ever should be required to do what we did.”

Rivkin said complaints of noise, traffic and parking are unfounded. A shared driveway and parking pad next door at 12 Aigburth Road, a rental property Rivkin owns, keep cars and the comings-and-goings of students on the opposite side of the building from the Zolls’ home.

He said he is disheartened by the opposition to the Chabad Center, which is serving the community, and said he feels as if they are being singled out.

“Their opposition is to us, not to any particulars of what we do,” Rivkin said. “That’s become clear.”

But Rivkin said there were neighbors that have been welcoming and supportive, too, as have students.

In a viral video produced by FOL about the dispute, “Towson Crisis: The Story,” Towson alumna Avigail London says, “All they ever teach is love and kindness. I cannot imagine how devastating it would be to see them without this space, now that they finally have it.”

The Future

Neither side in the dispute plans on backing away from their convictions about 14 Aigburth Road.

“We’re going for another appeal to the special appeals court and then we’ll ask for a stay and we’ll go to federal court if we have to,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said 20 years ago, when he began the process of opening the shul at the Lubavitch Center on Old Pimlico Road, the process took five years and property values went up.

“We eventually won and we built the building,” he said. “It’s been the best thing for the neighborhood that anyone could have imagined.”

Washington, D.C., attorney Nathan Lewin, whose firm specializes in U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate litigation, was recently retained by FOL.

(David Stuck photo)

“An appeal from Judge Cox’s order has been filed by the [Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber] firm,” Lewin said via email. “Maryland State remedies will be pursued before a federal claim is filed.”

Lewin said that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) might be in play. RLUIPA land use provisions “protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal claims under RLUIPA often challenge local government assertions that a building violates local zoning laws, according to Lewin.

If the county’s zoning violation claims and actions prevent the property purchaser’s “reasonable expectation” that the building could be used for religious exercise, the county may not “burden” or hinder that religious exercise unless it proves to a court it is necessary for the government’s interest and that the burden imposed is the least restrictive way of furthering that interest.

“In this case, Chabad House had much more than a ‘reasonable expectation’ when it bought the property that it would be used for a Chabad House to serve students at Towson and Goucher,” Lewin added. “That ‘reasonable expectation’ was made plain to the public when, almost immediately after the Rivkins moved in, it was opened as a Chabad House.”

Rivkin said he still feels comfortable in the community. He’s also not surprised by the opposition.

“It’s not like we weren’t aware that there was a possibility that we were never going to satisfy someone,” he said. “It’s been educational, but everything in life is educational. You try to learn what you can and you got to keep moving forward.”

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