The Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled Jan. 4 that a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue proposed for the 8400 block of Stevenson Road did not meet certain Baltimore County zoning requirements.
Board members Maureen Murphy, Jason Garber and James West said the plan for the synagogue did not comply to the extent possible with RTA (residential transitions areas) requirements — setbacks that help blend a property in with its surroundings — and that the plan was inconsistent with a previous development plan for the property.
The decisions, which came after 10 hearings that began in May 2016, were reached in a public deliberation attended by about 20 residents who oppose the synagogue. A written opinion is forthcoming.
“We’re obviously extremely pleased,” said Michael McCann, one of two attorneys hired by the neighborhood to challenge the synagogue proposed by Rabbi Velvel Belinsky.
The rabbi said he and his attorneys “are utterly disappointed.”
“We disagree with the decision and we are looking at all options available to us to continue moving forward and continue fighting,” Belinsky said. “We would get our synagogue built much easier and much quicker had the ruling went our way. But we’re not discouraged.”
Belinsky said a federal suit, which would be based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, is one of those options he and his team are looking at it. In a 2016 interview, Belinsky said he would file a federal suit if he lost at the Board of Appeals. He has retained Roman Storzer, a top RLUIPA attorney who attended most of the Board of Appeals hearings.
Ken Abel, a petitioner who lives next door to the property, said he and the community felt confident from the beginning that the rabbi’s plan violated a section of zoning code that said amendments to development plans but must be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan.” The original plan for the three-acre property, approved by the county in 2006, called for two single-family homes.
“I expect them to [appeal] and I respect the process, but I think we’re going to have the same result we said [we’d have] two years ago as to why this is inappropriate,” Abel said.
It was indeed two years ago at a community meeting that Belinsky shared his plans, which were met with opposition. The rabbi is spiritual leader of the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad congregation for Russian Jews that currently meets in Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s space on Old Pimlico Road. Many congregants are from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish practice was restricted. Belinsky hopes to build a two-story, 8,000-square-foot synagogue with an 88-seat sanctuary, 22 parking spaces in the back, a small kitchen and classroom and office space.
Neighboring residents cited issues such as pedestrian safety, traffic and the character of the neighborhood in its opposition.
The two cases — the RTA issue and the question over consistency with the original development plan are two separate cases — were first heard over the course of eight hearings in 2015 by county Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen. His opinion, released in January 2016, said the proposal met RTA requirements and that the rabbi could use the existing house on the property, at 8420 Stevenson Road, as his parsonage. But Beverungen also ordered that the plan for the proposed synagogue is not consistent original development plan. He did not make a decision as to whether the original plan is subject to the section of zoning code that requires amendments to the plan be “consistent with the spirit and intent of the original plan,” noting that the petition did not request that determination. Effectively, he did not make a decision as to if the original plan needed to go through the amendment process, but if it did, his opinion is that the synagogue would not pass this requirement.
The cases were appealed, sending it to the county Board of Appeals, which began a new set of hearings on May 12, 2016 during which both sides restated their cases rather than the board review Beverungen’s decision.
While no federal suit has been filed, Storzer told the JT in a 2016 interview that while RLUIPA is not a “blank check” for religious organizations, it does trump local zoning code.
“In general, a government cannot burden religious exercise unless it uses the least restrictive means of compelling government interest,” he said. “Normal zoning rules don’t apply.”
As far as traffic and other safety issues raised by residents are concerned, Storzer said: “It’s been my long experience that these types of justifications have often been used to oppose uses where they really have no merit. … There has to be demonstrated evidence that there is some real threat, not simply a hypothetical or speculative threat, to public health and safety.”