What’s going on with the Towson Chabad House?

A 4-year effort by Baltimore County permit and zoning officials to delay and prevent expansion of the Chabad House to accommodate the increasing number of Towson and Goucher students using its facilities has culminated in a court order that the $800,000 expansion be demolished. Efforts are being made in the Maryland state courts and will be made, if necessary, in federal court in Baltimore to prevent this senseless destruction that grows out of insensitivity to the needs of Jewish students and obvious misunderstanding of the function of a Chabad House at a university campus.

Most University Chabad Houses in the United States are zoned as “residences.” Baltimore County zoning officials adamantly and repeatedly demanded that the Towson Chabad House establish in time-consuming and expensive administrative hearings that it had a status other than a “residence” in order to receive a building permit that would enable it to expand so as to meet growing needs.

Chabad reluctantly complied with these unjustified demands. From the day the Chabad House opened, Rabbi and Mrs. Rivkin were up front in publicizing what their objectives were and how their residence would be used.

After the building permit was finally granted and much of the construction was done, a neighbor discovered a covenant in a 1950 deed prescribing a setback that was allegedly violated by the expanded building. A Maryland Circuit Court judge directed that the violation of the covenant be “removed” after hearing evidence of protests by neighbors and claims that by hosting dinners for many guests at the Chabad House the Rivkins had violated local zoning laws.

On October 31, 2018, a Circuit Judge for Baltimore County rejected the proposal made by a court-appointed receiver that, rather than demolishing the expanded building, it be moved back, at an expense of approximately $250,000, to comply with the covenant’s setback. The reason given by the judge for this drastic and Draconian judgment was the erroneous assertion of Baltimore County permit and zoning officials that use of the property “exceeded the use compatible with that of a residential property” and that the property’s owner “has been using the property without obtaining necessary approvals or complying with regulations.”

No county in the United States has more lawsuits against it alleging religious discrimination in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) than Baltimore County..

What’s the basic history here?

  • In 2008 Rabbi Mendy and Mrs. Sheiny Rivkin moved into a home on Aigburth Road, less than a block from the Towson University campus, and they established a Chabad House to serve the students and faculty.
  • As the Chabad House became more popular with nearby Jewish students at Towson and Goucher, the Rivkins decided to expand from the 2,200 square foot, three-bedroom house to a larger home that would better suit their needs.
  • In December 2011, they began the expansion process by approaching county officials who informed the neighborhood association.
  • A public ground-breaking was held in June 2014. Neighbors launched a campaign to delay, disrupt, and prevent the expansion.
  • The Rivkins tried to negotiate and reason with the neighbors, but the neighbors’ demands frequently changed.
  • Under pressure from the neighbors, Baltimore County officials said that Chabad House was a “synagogue” or “community center,” and not a residence also used for religious observances. County zoning officers issued a “violation” against Chabad House without ever doing an on-site inspection. The county officials then forced Rabbi Rivkin into two unnecessary public zoning hearings. A building permit was finally issued on April 19, 2016.
  • Construction began in May 2016 and moved along quickly. But a setback covenant in a 1950 deed was discovered after much construction had been completed.
  • In August 2016 Chabad House of Towson was sued by its neighbor for violating the setback covenant. Construction of the expansion was completed in early 2017.
  • In April 2017 the Baltimore County zoning board of appeals ruled in a 2-to-1 decision that the Chabad House had committed land use violations, accepting many of the neighbors’ erroneous factual claims. These findings became the ground invoked by the Circuit Court Judge in her decision of October 31, 2018, directing that the expanded building be “razed” because Rabbi Rivkin had committed “zoning violations” and had “unclean hands.”

Did Chabad of Towson file for the proper zoning approval?

Chabad of Towson filed all required paperwork and permits and was clear from the very beginning about the use of the property.

The Baltimore County officials, including the board of appeals, are apparently unfamiliar with a Chabad House that serves a university community.

Is a Chabad House a residence or a synagogue?

There are different kinds of Chabad Houses. Some operate as a traditional synagogue. Chabad House of Towson is like most Chabad Houses serving college campuses. It is a residence where the rabbi and his family invite students for dinner and other Jewish activities.

This activity is “religious exercise” within the scope of RLUIPA. By delaying and hindering the construction of the Chabad House expansion and by trying today to prevent its use for the religious activity that has been conducted there since 2008, Baltimore County officials and the Maryland courts that relied on erroneous determinations of the Baltimore County officials violated RLUIPA.

Why is a “covenant” relevant?

After much construction had been completed, Chabad House’s neighbor discovered a legal provision (“covenant”) that was in a deed to the property when it was transferred to an earlier owner in 1950.

The covenant states: That the dwelling to be erected thereon shall have a setback equal to one-half of the total set backs (sic) of the two houses erected on the lots adjoining to the East and West thereof, measured to the centre (sic) of said houses, exclusive of porches.

This covenant could mean that the front of the expansion must be set back 112 ½ and 115 feet from the property line. The expansion of the Chabad House—which was shown on the building permit—is 58 feet from the property line.

It’s worth noting that Baltimore County law Bill No. 137-2004) provides that churches “shall be exempt from any setback required from adjoining residential zone boundary lines.”

What is RLUIPA and why does it matter here?

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (known as “RLUIPA”) protects “religious exercise” and any “religious assembly or institution” against government “land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden” on religious activity unless the involved government agency can demonstrate “a compelling governmental interest” that is furthered by “the least restrictive means.” Other provisions of RLUIPA prohibit discrimination against religious assemblies and institutions and government imposition of a land use regulation that excludes religious assemblies or unreasonably limits them. By delaying, hindering, and finally seeking to demolish the Chabad House’s expansion, Baltimore County officials and the Circuit Courts that have relied on the officials’ illegal acts and erroneous findings have violated various RLUIPA prohibitions. Consequently, they are subject to a RLUIPA lawsuit in which a federal court may grant injunctive relief and award damages and attorneys’ fees.

But isn’t the neighborhood association also complaining?

The Aigburth Manor Association of Towson has waged a campaign against Chabad of Towson and the Rivkins. The neighborhood association was a co-plaintiff in the “covenant” case, and it alleged that Chabad hosts large gatherings and creates parking issues because there is no on-site parking.

In fact, the guests that Rabbi and Mrs. Rivkin invite to their home are mostly students from nearby Towson who walk the half of block from campus. There hasn’t been a single noise complaint filed against the Rivkins and Chabad of Towson. There are big structures (several apartment complexes, a nursing home, a church, and a large high school building) on the same street as the Chabad House.

Chabad of Towson is literally down the block—about six houses down—from the Towson University campus. In that short distance between Chabad and the campus is a 60-apartment assisted living facility and an apartment complex with a parking lot for 100 cars. A short distance in the other direction is a church with a 30-car parking lot across from Towson High School, which is over capacity with approximately 1,500 students. A little farther is a seniors apartment complex and another sprawling apartment complex.

Since the students served by Chabad walk the few hundred feet from campus, parking is not an issue. Nor has there been a single noise complaint filed against Chabad of Towson. So, it’s hard to understand why Aigburth Manor has singled out the Rivkins and Chabad of Towson.

So this is a real travesty?

If the Chabad House is torn down, it will likely be the first time in American history that a structure devoted to Jewish religious observance is destroyed by court order. A building constructed at a cost of almost one million dollars would be torn down with exceedingly traumatic consequences for Jewish students in Towson University and Goucher College. The destruction of a Jewish home away from home because it was allegedly built too close to the street and its owners were mistakenly accused of “exceed[ing] the use compatible with that of a residential property” would be an outrageous act of religious hostility. Towson is a neighborhood with no synagogue of any denomination and many of the Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College rely on it as their Jewish home. Rarely, if ever, have homes been totally demolished because of an ancient setback “covenant.” This is not justice.

What can I do to help?

1. Donate! The legal battle to keep the Chabad House from being demolished is very expensive. The battle has been waged for several years and Chabad may now have to take it to federal court.

Chabad of Towson is not fleeing. If its expansion is torn down, it will be replaced on the same property, perhaps a few feet back. It will continue to serve the local Jewish population and the students at Towson University and Goucher College.

So please donate here, and donate generously!

2. Sign up here to receive updates, so you can follow the case. Periodically we may call to action with a petition that has to be signed or with a request for letters to be written or calls to be made.