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Fallstaff Neighbors Fight Conversion Of Single-Family Home to Synagogue

A breakaway congregation of Orthodox Jews will get a chance this morning to present its defense against 35 neighbors who want to keep it from opening a synagogue in Baltimore’s Fallstaff community.The neighbors filed an action for injunctive relief against Bais Haknesses of Baltimore Inc. in Baltimore City Circuit Court last week to prevent a single-family home at 3201 Fallstaff Road from being converted to a synagogue. At the close of the plaintiffs’ testimony yesterday afternoon, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard said they had made a prima facie case for the preliminary injunction and rejected a defense motion to dismiss.“There seems to be a clear intent based on the evidence presented so far to keep this area a residential community,” Heard told the parties.After asking counsel for cites after testimony closed yesterday evening, the judge said that she would hear the defense case this morning and promised a ruling by mid-day tomorrow. On its face — and certainly to plaintiffs’ counsel Donald A. Rea — the case comes down to the enforceability of a restrictive covenant. Bais Haknesses bought the Fallstaff Road house to convert it to a synagogue. However, covenants in the chain of title limit its use to “private residence purposes only designed for occupancy by not more than one family.”According to Rea, the house is in one of five areas of what has become the predominantly Jewish Fallstaff neighborhood, each of which is subject to similar covenants. And Rea insists that those covenants are enforceable by his clients, the Fallstaff neighborhood group.Bais Haknesses took title from an out-of-town buyer “not affiliated in any way with” the group, according to Leonard Friedman, its Baltimore-area president. Several witnesses, including Friedman, whom Rea called as a hostile witness for the plaintiffs, said the group has obtained the only approvals it needs to make the conversion, from the city of Baltimore.In order to obtain a use permit for the house to operate as a synagogue, the group obtained a permit to pave 3,180 square feet, or “about half” the back yard, to provide adequate parking. Bais Haknesses also began construction on an exterior staircase between the first and second floor. In testimony yesterday, several witnesses also said that interior remodeling was underway.CommittedOn the witness stand, Friedman and Dr. Michael J. Elman, a plaintiff who lives next door to the subject property and who testified for his neighbors, both said they were unaware of the restrictive covenants. Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss, Bais Haknesses’ spiritual leader, confined his comments on the case to remarks he made to the Baltimore Jewish Times last week.“We are committed to creating a shul in that area that will have a positive impact on the immediate area and community at large,” Weiss was reported as having said, adding that the congregation “made an effort to reach out” to its neighbors, “but they shunned us.”