A long-running neighborhood dispute over the status of a building connected with a religious organization in Towson's Aigburth Manor neighborhood moved a step closer to a resolution this month when the Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled that the 6,600-square-foot structure is a community center and not, as its owner claims, a residence.
Chabad of Towson and Goucher is an outreach program sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch, a division of Orthodox Judaism.
According to its website, the center serves the Jewish community of Towson University and Goucher College. Its offerings include a library, student dinners, religious education, social events and holiday gatherings.
The Sept. 5 decision comes as another one regarding the structure is pending. In April, a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ordered that the structure be torn down by March 1, 2018, ruling that in building where they did, property owner Friends of Lubavitch, Inc. violated a covenant in a 1950 deed requiring that the structure be at least 115 feet from the road. Friends of Lubavitch appealed the decision the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, but a hearing date has not yet been set.
The property was originally a three-bedroom home with an office when it was purchased in 2008 by Friends of Lubavitch, Inc., "whose primary focus is outreach to Jews who have never actively practiced their faith or who have drifted from the practice of Judaism," according to the opinion.
However, a dispute arose in 2014 when a rabbi living in the home announced plans to expand the existing building and, in 2015, applied for a building permit to construct a "parsonage" more than triple the size of the original home. The three-story addition is connected to the original home by a breezeway, according to the opinion.
Neighbors who have been fighting the addition say the building is out of character with the neighborhood, has decreased property values and that large gatherings hosted in the building have increased traffic in the neighborhood.
The property, zoned for residential use, was expanded in 2016 with permits declaring the structure would be a residential addition and built under county zoning requirements for residences.
The Chabad-Lubavitch website lists Chabad-Lubavitch of Towson, at 14 Aigburth Road, as one of its community centers. Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, and his wife, Sheiny Rivkin, are listed as co-directors.
Rivkin did not return requests for comment.
The Board of Appeals opinion, issued Sept. 5, does not contain an order but clarifies the property's use as a community center as a violation of county zoning.
According to the opinion, Friends of Lubavitch altered plans for a building originally designated as a "parsonage" to a "residential addition" after the Baltimore County Department of Planning determined the parsonage could not be constructed without a special exception.
A judge denied the request to build a parsonage in 2015 and the matter was not appealed.
In 2016, according to the opinion, the same plans were resubmitted as a residential expansion and petitioned by neighbors.
Building permits for the residential additional were eventually approved and the neighbors' petition was dismissed as "premature" because the structure had not yet been built, according to the opinion.
The Board of Appeals found that Lubavitch acted in bad faith and that, even before adding the new building, had been acting as a community center at 14 Aigburth Road. It also found that the only "genuine" primary purpose of the new structure was to enhance the Lubavitch community center's presence and activities and that the claim that the addition was residential was not credible.
Rivkin's testimony before the Board of Appeals on the matter was "not particularly credible on contested points" and his "demeanor had been dismissive towards his neighbors and truculent in general," the opinion states.
"Clearly it is, always has been and was purchased initially as a community center—a student center to be exact," said Robin Zoll, who lives next door to the property and is the lead plaintiff in the case. "It's tax-exempt as a religious student center and is still tax exempt as a student center. It is still listed on the Towson University campus ministries … The decision is the only decision that could have been made."
"I think they ought to shutter it," Zoll added.
Friends of Lubavitch has 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal it to the Circuit Court, according to Baltimore County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.
"If an appeal is taken, [the county] would not take any action until the courts have reviewed and issued a final decision," Kobler said.
The owner could also file a petition for a special exception for a community building, which would require a hearing before the Office of Administrative Hearings, Kobler said.
The Aigburth Manor Association is deciding on its next steps in the case, according to Paul Hartman, vice president of the neighborhood's community association. Hartman was called to the Board of Appeals as a witness in the matter.