A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge has ordered that a controversial 6,614-square-foot structure a religious organization built in a residential neighborhood in Towson must come down within the next year.
The decision is the latest in a legal battle between Friends of Lubavitch Inc. and the organization's neighbors in the community of Aigburth Manor, who say that the structure the organization built at 14 Aigburth Road is out of character with the neighborhood, has decreased the value of surrounding property and led to parking problems.
Friends of Lubavitch Inc. owns the Chabad of Towson and Goucher, which has operated at 14 Aigburth Road for more than eight years. The structure, which Lubavitch officials say serves as a residence to Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, his wife and children and was built as an addition to an existing house on the property, is also used to host weekly dinners, holiday gatherings and other events for Jewish students from Towson University and Goucher College.
Chabad of Towson and Goucher describes itself as a "Jewish home away from home." According to its Facebook page, it offers a wide variety of activities and programs, including five-course Shabbat dinners every Friday night, Judaism classes and a weekly womens' lunch.
Some neighbors have said they believe the primary purpose of the structure is as a religious gathering place.
On April 7, Baltimore County Circuit Court judge Susan Souder ruled that, in building the structure where it did at 14 Aigburth Road, Lubavitch officials violated a covenant in a 1950 deed requiring that the structure be at least 115 feet from the road, and that the organization must remove the structure from the property by March 1, 2018. The structure is less than 60 feet from the road, according to the lawsuit.
Rivkin testified that he had no knowledge of the covenant restriction until July 2016, but that, by then, Chabad had already begun construction of the structure, which he said cost $800,000.
Lubavitch officials called the setback covenant "unambiguous and unenforceable." A surveyor for the group testified that he measured the distance from the physical center of the property and not the front edge of the property to the street.
However, Souder ruled that Friends of Lubavitch was aware of the setback requirements in the deed before construction of the structure began due to title insurance that noted the requirements and prevented the group from filing a claim for anything related to building too close to the street.
Aigburth Road project raises question: Is it a house or religious building?
In her 21-page opinion, Souder stated the evidence was "undisputed" that the 1950 deed imposed the setback requirements on additions to the property.
Rivkin said on Thursday that his family was not dealing with the order this week. The decision comes during Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus of Jews from Egypt.
"We're obviously very disappointed with the outcome," Friends of Lubavitch attorney Kimberly Manuelides said Friday. Manuelides said the group has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling.
'Waited a long time'
The lawsuit was brought by the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, a community association, and resident Robin Zoll, who owns the residence next to the Chabad property.
Zoll testified that construction of the building on the Chabad property ruined the view from her front porch in the community of stately oaks and maples, and that it decreased the value of her property by 5 percent, or $17,075.
"I couldn't be happier," Zoll said Thursday of the ruling. "We waited a very long time for something to be done about this building. ... Unfortunately the damage that this organization, Friends of Lubavitch, has done to our lives and community could have been prevented if Baltimore County had enforced its zoning laws to begin with."
A separate zoning case determining whether the structure is a residence or community center was deliberated in the Baltimore County Board of Appeals in March but a written decision is still pending.
"This organization [Friends of Lubavitch] has proven themselves over and over again that the laws don't apply to them," Zoll said. "That's their attitude."
"They knew what they were doing and that it was against the law," she added.
In June 2014, Rivkin told the Towson Times that he planned a $2 million expansion to meet the growing needs of both university students and the Jewish community of Towson. Initially planned as a synagogue, plans for the project were scaled down, according to the story.
A residential addition to the property was eventually approved by a judge.
"Religion has nothing to do with it really," Paul Hartman, former president of the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, said Thursday. "It's the number of people. Where do they park? If you want to park in front of your own home in the neighborhood right now you've got to pay for a permit from the county because of the proximity to Towson [University]."
"I am sad that it had to come to this," Hartman added. "We'd been all along hopeful that the Rabbi would hold off significant construction until all of these things were settled."