A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge heard testimony Wednesday on two proposals for what to do about the Chabad of Towson University and Goucher College, a structure in Towson’s residential Aigburth Manor neighborhood that a court ruled is in violation of a setback covenant.
Neighbors want Hasidic Jewish organization, Friends of Lubavitch, which runs the Jewish outreach program, Chabad, to raze the building. But the Jewish outreach group proposed moving it backward 62 feet instead.
Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox, who took over the case after Judge Susan Souder retired earlier this year, will decide between the two. But in closing remarks, Cox expressed concerns about ruling either way in a case that has layered expensive appeals one after another.
“It is clear as day to me that no matter what I rule, there will be an appeal,” Cox said. “You all are locked in this battle that I think, procedurally, is in a posture that doesn’t serve either side well.”
The case stems from the construction of a large addition in front of a residential building at 14 Aigburth Road. Friends of Lubavitch was ordered to tear down the structure last April because it violates setback covenants in the deed. The structure, which dwarfs the original building, sits less than 60 feet from the road, far closer than the required 115 feet. Setting it back 62 feet would then meet more than the required 115 setback covenant.
More than 20 residents from Aigburth Manor and nearby neighborhoods attended the hearing in support of Robin Zoll, who lives at 16 Aigburth Road, next to the Chabad building, and is the main plaintiff in the case.
Tracey Marcantoni, vice president of Burkleigh Square Community Association, said she attended the hearing to support Zoll because, “if it can happen in one neighborhood, it can happen in another.”
Souder ordered that the structure be torn down by March 1 this year. After Friends of Lubavitch failed to do so, Souder appointed zoning attorney Deborah Dopkin as a receiver in May, tasked with carrying out the court’s order. Later this year, instead of removing the new structure, Friends of Lubavitch proposed tearing down the original building behind it and moving the new building backward.
At the hearing Wednesday, Dopkin introduced construction expert Scott Adashek, who researched contractors and estimates for both razing and moving the building. Adashek told the court that demolition would take about eight weeks, while moving the building back would take double that time, about 16 weeks. Moving the building would require four county permits and a complex system of motorized beams and posts, he said.
Zoll said though moving the building would technically satisfy setback requirements, only tearing it down entirely would solve all its legal issues.
The large building, Zoll said under oath, is being used as a community center, not as a residential addition, in violation of zoning laws and the original residential building permit. She cited frequent community gatherings that have taken place there for Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College as well as features like a commercial-sized kitchen.
Sheiny Rivkin, who lives in the house and runs the Chabad program with her husband Rabbi Menachem Rivkin, also testified under oath, saying the building is used as a residence and that inviting Jewish students over is a part of her home and family life. Visibly pregnant, Rivkin said that with five children and another on the way, the family built the addition because they needed more space.
“Everything we do is residential,” Sheiny Rivkin said. “It’s our family, that’s what we do.”
Zoll said ultimately that if the Chabad building continues to stand and be used as a Jewish student center, the old residential neighborhood of Aigburth Manor “will essentially be a part of the Towson University campus.”
Various courts have already heard or will hear various aspects of and appeals in the Chabad case, including one hearing at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that took place the day before on Tuesday. A ruling on that aspect of the case has not yet been released.
Dopkin also recommended to the court that contractor Next Day Demolition be chosen to do the work whichever way the judge ruled. Cox delayed a ruling in order to give the Friends of Lubavitch team time to review the recommendation and estimates, and said she will rule when she receives a response from their team. Even so, Cox urged both parties to consider mediation, saying she feared the appeals would continue.
Zoll, too, said she has incurred high legal fees and feared the case would drag on – but that if it does, she is ready to continue to fight it.
“We’re sticking it out,” Zoll said. “We’re staying.”