Jewish group files for extension to keep Towson Chabad house standing

In April 2017, a Circuit Court judge ruled that an addition to a building associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch of Towson, violated setback covenants and would have to be torn down by March 1, 2018.

But on Feb. 28, one day before the deadline, Friends of Lubavitch Inc., the parent organization for the Jewish outreach program, Chabad of Towson and Goucher, and which owns the property at 14 Aigburth Road, filed a motion in court to delay the tear-down order, court records show.

“Removal of the addition in advance of a final ruling on appeal is likely to cause unnecessary waste and expense,” Friends of Lubavitch’s lawyer, Kimberly Manuelides, wrote in the request.

The request asked the court to move the tear-down deadline to 90 days following the ruling on the appeal. Oral arguments for that appeal are scheduled for September this year.

The move is the latest in an ongoing legal dispute between Friends of Lubavitch, also known as Chabad, and neighbors of the property. Neighbors claimed that the addition, built in 2016, violates zoning regulations and was built under false pretenses.

“There is no legitimate reason for this building to be on the property,” Robin Zoll, whose home at 16 Aigburth Road is adjacent to the property, said in an interview.

Chabad of Towson and Goucher is sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox-Jewish Hasidic movement which often opens centers and does outreach to Jewish students on college campuses.

Chabad’s website lists 14 Aigburth Road as the location for Chabad of Towson and Goucher, and 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 tear-down order originates from a lawsuit that Zoll and the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson brought in August 2016.

In that case, in the Circuit Court of Baltimore County, Judge Susan Souder ruled in April 2017 in favor of Zoll, saying that the 6,614-square-foot building violated a covenant in the 1950 deed requiring the structure to be at least 115 feet from the road. According to the lawsuit, it is less than 60 feet from the road. The judge ordered on April 7, 2017, that the structure be removed by March 1.

The property was originally a three-bedroom home with an office when it was purchased in 2008 by Friends of Lubavitch Inc., according to a Sept. 20, 2017, article in the Towson Times, quoting from the judge’s opinion.

However, a dispute arose in 2014 when the occupant living in the home, Rabbi Menachem Rivkin, 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.

According to the lawsuit, Zoll’s assessed property value decreased by $17,075 after the addition was built. Additionally, the lawsuit says, Zoll testified that the construction ruined her “enjoyment of her property” by blocking the view from her porch.

In appeal documents, Manuelides argued that the court failed to balance that consideration against the $550,000 that Friends of Lubavitch has spent on construction, and would therefore lose if the building were to be demolished.

Zoll said that her lawyers are responding to Friends of Lubavitch’s request for a stay, asking that it not be granted.

Rivkin, who lives in the building with his wife, Sheiny Rivkin, and two of their five children, and co-leads the Chabad center with his wife, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Manuelides.

A separate ruling by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals in early September 2017 declared that the addition, which was constructed with a permit for a residential addition, violates zoning regulations by operating as a community center rather than a residence.

Rivkin maintained in that case that the addition was residential, intended for use by him, his wife and their children.

The September ruling determined that Lubavitch “acted in bad faith” in constructing the addition under the pretense that it was merely residential.

That ruling, however, said that the Board of Appeals did not have the authority to order the removal of the building — only to determine that its use was not compliant with regulations.

Zoll argued that after that ruling, it is the county’s responsibility to tear down the building.

“We disagree with [Zoll’s] interpretation that the County must require the addition to be removed,” county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler wrote in an email. “The Board’s issue was the use, not the size of the building.”

“Should the Chabad continue to host Friday night dinners in violation of the board’s decision, the County is prepared to enforce the board’s order,” Kobler said.

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