Towson Chabad Files Appeal on Controversial Structure

Sheiny and Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, directors of Chabad of Towson and Goucher (Provided)

The Chabad Jewish Center of Towson University and Goucher College is seeking to overturn a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge’s ruling that calls for the removal of a 6,614-square-foot structure in a residential Towson neighborhood within the next year.

The move is the most recent in a months-long legal standoff between the Chabad and a neighborhood in the Aigburth Manor community.

Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Susan Souder ruled on April 7 that the structure, located at 14 Aigburth Road, violated a covenant in a 1950 deed requiring structures be at least 115 feet from the road. In her 21-page opinion, Souder ordered that the Chabad must take down the structure by March 1, 2018.

Friends of Lubavitch, which owns the Chabad, filed an appeal on May 5 to Souder’s decision in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second-highest ranking court.

A Baltimore County Board of Appeals clerk told the JT on Monday that “an order to proceed” with the appeal has not been received. Under state law, Friends of Lubavitch has 30 to 45 days to proceed with the appeal from the date it was filed.

The lawsuit, filed last August by the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson — the community governing the neighborhood — and resident Robin Zoll, raises concerns over pedestrian safety, decreased property value and character of the neighborhood.

In an interview with the JT, Zoll said she is disappointed she had to take legal action but felt she was left with no other options.

“It’s sad for both parties,” said Zoll, who has lived at the neighboring 16 Aigburth Road for more than 34 years. “I think it was a really reckless decision. It’s been a terrible thing for both sides to have to live through.”

Michael McCann, an attorney for Zoll and the neighborhood association, did not respond to a request seeking comment.

The property at 14 Aigburth Road is home to Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, his wife, Sheiny, and five children but is owned by Friends of Lubavitch, according to state records.

When Friends of Lubavitch purchased the property in 2008, the deed did not mention the covenant, according to Michael Schleupner, who testified as a lead witness for the plaintiffs. However, a title search for the restriction was discovered through the attorney who conducted the closing of the property’s sale.

In his testimony, Rivkin asserted he had no knowledge of the covenant restriction until July 2016, one month prior to when the lawsuit was filed. At the point, Chabad had mostly completed construction and would have only saved $200,000 of the $800,000 cost had it stopped then, court records show.

Rivkin and Friends of Lubavitch attorney Kimberly Manuelides declined to comment on the ruling and pending appeal.

The Chabad’s addition was built onto the front of the center of the property, tripling its previous size of 2,200 square feet and going from two to three stories. The original building was built on the back of the property.

The facility was originally slated to house a $3 million synagogue with a library, a conference room, a large dining room, a professional kitchen, a student lounge and guest suites for visitors and parents, according to a June 2014 JT article. But those plans were pared back to keep it a residence.

Still, some neighbors wonder if the building, as constructed, would serve as a place of worship despite Friends of Lubavitch applying for residential zoning.

Paul Hartman, vice president of the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, said it is important to maintain the structural integrity of the neighborhood, which dates to the Civil War period.

“We gave Friends of Lubavitch and Chabad of Towson every opportunity to resolve the issue before construction got too far along,” Hartman said. “So, this is where we stand now.”

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals, meanwhile, heard a separate zoning case in March to decide whether the facility should be classified as a residence or community center. That decision, as of press time, is still pending.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, said the structure serves a variety of integral functions. It is used primarily for weekly Shabbat dinners, holiday gatherings and other activities and programs for Towson and Goucher students.

Zoll said in court Rivkin was “dishonest” in his assertion that the Chabad would only be used as a residence, to which Rivkin said, “I was as honest as I could be to get my permit.”

In her testimony, Zoll mentioned the value of her property has decreased 5 percent, or $17,075, though she told the JT an independent contractor estimated that number to be at least twice as much.

She said she has spent thousands of dollars planting trees as a barrier in front of the structure, which sits 10 feet from her property.

Prior to the structure being built, Zoll noted she would enjoy sitting on her front porch with a newspaper and taking in the scenic outdoor background.

“Now, all we look at is a three-story brick wall,” Zoll said. “All you see is the pipes and exhaust coming from the wall.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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