Judge won't delay teardown order for Towson Chabad, but building still stands

One month after a court-imposed deadline to tear down a building addition at 14 Aigburth Road, the Chabad of Towson and Goucher is continuing the legal battle to keep it standing.

Hasidic Jewish organization Friends of Lubavitch, the owner of the building, was ordered last April to tear down a recent addition because it violates setback covenants. The deadline was March 1 this year.

Friends of Lubavitch appealed the order. Then the day before the deadline, they asked the court to extend it until after that appeals process is complete, which will take until at least September. Circuit Court Judge Susan Souder denied the request.

Now, Friends of Lubavitch is appealing that denial to Maryland’s appellate court, in a filing dated April 2.

Kimberly Manuelides, a lawyer for Friends of Lubavitch, said that she was “disappointed” in the judge’s decision, arguing that if the building is demolished before the appeal process is complete, the appeal will be rendered meaningless.

“You run the potential of completely denying one party their full day in court, which they’re entitled to,” she said.

In the request for the stay, Manuelides wrote that having the structure demolished would cause “unnecessary waste and expense.” Attached in court documents was a demolition quote from the company Renovation Contractors LLC for $98,575.

Robin Zoll, who lives next door to Chabad and is the lead plaintiff in the case, said the recent moves show that Friends of Lubavitch has no intention of complying with the order to tear it down.

“Somehow the burden ends up being on us to make them follow the court order,” Zoll said. “And that’s wrong.”

In a response to the request for a stay, Zoll’s legal team argued that it should not be granted because Friends of Lubavitch offered no excuse for missing the March 1 deadline.

In an interview, Manuelides said that she had intended to file the request before Feb. 28, but that as she was getting ready to file it she fractured her elbow and was out of the office.

To force Friends of Lubavitch’s hand, Zoll’s lawyer Michael McCann filed a motion Thursday asking the court to appoint a receiver to execute the judgment. In other words, he said, if the judge approves the motion she will appoint someone who is not involved in the case to take control of the property and have the structure torn down.

“We are now in a position where if we do nothing, they’ll do nothing, and it’ll be there for the rest of our lives,” Zoll said.

Friends of Lubavitch has 15 days to respond before a judge rules on the motion.

Even though Friends of Lubavitch is appealing the denial, a process McCann said could take months, that would not stop a receiver from carrying out the judgment, he said.

“The ball is in their court to get a stay,” McCann said. “Until and unless they do, the order moves forward.”

The judge found last year that the 6,614-square-foot structure, an addition to the front of a pre-existing residential building, violated a covenant in the 1950 deed requiring it to be at least 115 feet from the road. According to the lawsuit, it is less than 60 feet from the road.

Manuelides called the judge’s decision to order the structure be demolished “unjust,” saying a remedy like awarding damages would have been more appropriate.

Zoll said that the issue of monetary damages was mentioned at trial, and that she considers the idea “perfectly absurd.”

“The damage is the building,” Zoll said. “As long as that stays there, I continue to be damaged … The only way to remedy this is to tear it down.”

House or community center?

Aside from the issue of the setback, Zoll said, the structure is subject to a question of zoning: Is it a residence or a community center?

According to court records, the building permit Friends of Lubavitch obtained was for a residential addition. Rabbi Menachem Rivkin and his wife Sheiny, who lead Chabad of Towson and Goucher, and their children live in the original house, which is connected to the addition by a breezeway.

But a September ruling by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals found that Friends of Lubavitch had “exceeded the use compatible with that of a residential property.” The house is listed as the headquarters of Chabad of Towson and Goucher, part of an organization that does outreach to Jewish students on college campuses. According to the the board’s opinion documents, it is outfitted with an industrial kitchen, a cloak room and a dining room that seats more than 120.

According to the documents and to Zoll, Chabad hosts frequent large gatherings of students and is listed on tax documents as a “Jewish Student Center,” instead of as a residence. A sign outside the building labels it as “Chabad.”

Chabad posts frequent public events on its Facebook page — most recently, a Passover Seder Facebook event listing from March 31 says it had more than 198 guests.

The Board of Appeals found that Friends of Lubavitch had “acted in bad faith,” had been acting as a community center “even before the new building,” that the “primary purpose” of the addition was to enhance Chabad’s community center presence, and that “the claim that this was simply an addition to a residence was not credible.”

According to the Baltimore County building code, the county can revoke a building permit if there is a “false statement or misrepresentation of fact in the application or on the plans on which the permit or approval was based.”

But Arnold Jablon, county director of permits, approvals and inspections, said the county has no plans to revoke the permit, saying in an email sent through spokeswoman Ellen Kobler that it was “legally applied for and secured,” and was not acquired under false pretenses.

“If I say I will use my home as a residence but use one room for a home office, is that a false statement?” Jablon wrote. “What if the property owner at the time he applied for a bldg. permit believed his intentions were permitted as residential uses?”

Asked for a response to the allegations that the building is being used in violation of its zoning, Manuelides declined to comment, saying she does not represent Friends of Lubavitch in that matter.

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