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Aigburth Road project raises question: Is it a house or religious building?

This addition is being constructed to a building at 14 Aigburth Road, in Towson. The building's owner, and its neighbors, disagree on whether the addition should be called a residence or something more.
This addition is being constructed to a building at 14 Aigburth Road, in Towson. The building's owner, and its neighbors, disagree on whether the addition should be called a residence or something more. (Rachael Pacella / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As a new 6,614-square-foot, two-story addition has risen at 14 Aigburth Road in Towson, so has contention among neighbors in the Aigburth Manor community.

During the summer, Robin Zoll watched the structure rise next to her house at 16 Aigburth Road. She wants the 14 Aigburth addition torn down and says it should have never been built; she and other neighbors say that while its owner contends that the addition is being built for use as a residence, the building will be used as a religious center for some members of the Jewish community at Towson University and Goucher College, as an existing building on the property is already used.

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The Chabad of Towson and Goucher has operated from the property for eight years, from a home on the lot, and its neighbors have tolerated the use without complaints, Zoll and other residents of the neighborhood said. But the expansion could bring noise and decrease available parking in the neighborhood, Aigburth Manor Association Vice President Paul Hartman said.

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The addition, which will cost roughly $550,000 in materials and labor, according to its building permit, is also out of character with other homes, neighbors argue.

When the property's owners submitted a building permit for the addition April 19, that permit specified that it was for use as a private residence only.

The addition is being built 53 feet from the road, according to plans filed with Baltimore County. That's much closer to the street than neighboring homes, including hers, Zoll said. Zoll's house is 35 feet high, while the addition will be 47 feet high, according to county records. And while those standards don't break zoning rules for residences, they do break rules for properties with non-residential uses, neighbors argue.

The neighborhood isn't entirely residential. Towson High School is nearby, as is the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Towson. One street north of Aigburth Road, on Burke Avenue, is a showroom for Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouses.

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals convened a hearing Oct. 27 to discuss the addition and the legal use of the property on which it is being built. The hearing is in response to appeals of two decisions rendered by the county's administrative law judge earlier this year. Those decisions resulted from a request to verify that the addition can be built, which was submitted by the property's owners, and a request to determine the proper use of the property under county zoning rules, which was submitted by the neighbors. The hearing, which did not end Oct. 27, will be continued Jan. 12, according to Hartman.

The county's administrative law judge granted the property owner's request to verify that the addition can be built on April 6, though in that order the judge warned that "if for whatever reason this Order is reversed, Petitioner would be required to return the subject property to its original condition." The second request, from the neighbors, was dismissed by the administrative law judge, who said the question is a code enforcement matter, which wouldn't be handled in an administrative hearing. The neighbors appealed both decisions to the Board of Appeals, which resulted in the Oct. 27 hearing.

Several Towson residents are circulating a petition asking the Baltimore County Council to keep a proposed Towson Urban Center overlay district north of Towsontown Boulevard, so as not to make future developments in the downtown core too dense. Also, a bill by Councilman David Marks to ease parking restrictions for a development that is proposed on the site of Trader Joe's was expected to be voted on this week.

Hartman hopes the Board of Appeals will answer the question he has been asking for two years — what exactly is the use of the property? Is it a residence or a community center?

A question of use

The property is home to Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, his wife, and five children, but is owned by Friends of Lubavich, Inc., according to state records. Rivkin and his attorney, Tim Kotroco, say the property is a residence. This year, the two-story addition was approved by the county for use as a private residence only, according to county records. Work on the addition began this summer, is ongoing and nearly complete.

But neighbors say the property is also being used as a community center called Chabad of Towson and Goucher, an outreach organization that provides support for the college campuses' Jewish community. A Facebook page for Chabad of Towson and Goucher lists 14 Aigburth as its address. The page says the Chabad offers classes in Judaism, as well as social events, such as Shabbat dinners for students.

"Here at Chabad, we aim to be your Jewish home away from home," a description on the page reads.

The Chabad is a part of Chabad-Lubavich, an international Jewish outreach movement, according to Chabad.org, a division of Chabad-Lubavich Media Center. According to the local group's Facebook page, Chabad of Towson and Goucher provides a variety of services to support students.

In 2014 Chabad of Towson and Goucher held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the addition, saying programming would be held in the new space, according to a June 2014 Towson Times article. At that time, Rivkin said the addition would help the group meet the needs of the Towson community, adding that the expansion would allow Chabad of Towson and Goucher to offer more classes and services.

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"We want to meet the demand that wants to reach us," Rivkin said in 2014. "Now, our lack of space limits the programs we can offer. There is talk about building apartments in downtown Towson, and we need to grow to meet the needs" of anticipated Jewish residents."

It was after that groundbreaking that neighbors were first alerted to the size of the addition, Hartman said.

Kotroco spoke briefly about the hearing Oct. 27. Rivkin declined multiple offers to comment for this story.

"I will however say that we have gone to great lengths, with considerable cost in time and money and with various concessions, in order to compromise and try to satisfy all our neighbors," Rivkin said in an Oct. 20 email. "And we continue to be available to meet and address any of their concerns."

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Hearing

The Aigburth Manor Association contends the addition should have been built under stricter non-residential standards, requiring more space between the structure and property border, and providing parking so as not to stress street parking. Hartman has been challenging the use of the building for two years, he said.

At the Oct. 27 hearing, Brian Murphy, attorney for the Aigburth Manor Association, presented evidence, such as Facebook event invitations, showing that the Chabad invites more than 100 students to the home for some events. Residents also point to a small yellow "Chabad" sign at the edge of property as an indication of its non-residential use.

The People's Counsel for Baltimore County, Peter Zimmerman, was also a party at the hearing. Zimmerman said it is his job to defend the zoning code of the county.

In his introductory remarks Oct. 27, he said that he believes the key to the case is defining the property's use. Zimmerman contends that the property's use has been, and will be, more than residential.

"For whatever reason the petitioner, Friends of Lubavich, don't want to face that reality; they are trying so hard to avoid it," he said. "That's the elephant in the room in this case."

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No one is denying that Rivkin lives there with his family, Zimmerman said, adding, "just because he lives there doesn't mean that that's the only use."

At the hearing, Kotroco, Rivkin's lawyer, denied that the property was anything other than a residence, adding that the owners don't want to use the house as a religious parsonage or synagogue.

Kotroco called as a witness Scott Dallas, of the surveying firm J.S. Dallas Inc., who was accepted by the board as an expert on Baltimore County zoning regulations. Dallas testified that the addition was in compliance with zoning restrictions for the property, which is zoned DR 5.5, or density residential.

The building permit submitted April 19 and subsequently approved by county officials this spring specifies that the use must be only residential. Murphy questioned the legality of that approval, again asserting that if the structure were held to the standards of a non-residential use, it would not have been to code.

The neighborhood association and Zoll also are challenging the addition in Baltimore County Circuit Court. That suit, which is separate from the administrative law challenge, is based on a covenant placed on a deed for 14 Aigburth dated Oct. 2, 1950. In a complaint filed in circuit court Aug. 12, Zoll's lawyer, Michael McCann, contends that the addition violates that covenant, which he says requires structures on the property to be set back at least 112 feet from Aigburth Road.

A conference between parties to settle that matter outside of court is scheduled for Dec. 5; if that is unsuccessful, a non-jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 10.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Paul Hartman's title related to the Aigburth Manor Association.



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