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Synagogue Backers State Their Case

A judge is set to rule today on whether to grant injunctive relief to three dozen households in Baltimore’s Fallstaff community in their bid to keep a congregation of Orthodox Jews from opening a synagogue in their neighborhood.The Fallstaff homeowners filed an action for preliminary and permanent 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 full-time, 70-seat synagogue.At the heart of the case are 60-year-old restrictive covenants drafted to run with the land, which the plaintiffs argue clearly limit the property to use as a single-family residence. “[The restrictive covenants] convey an intent to develop a residential neighborhood, and in fact that’s exactly what they’ve done,” Baltimore City Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard said. “They establish the parameters and restrictions for a residential neighborhood.”However, during argument yesterday Heard repeatedly returned to the question of use, particularly the difference between the 3201 Fallstaff road property and two nearby houses that are currently used for prayer meetings as well as residences.

“We have plaintiffs in this case who have violated a whole slew of restrictive covenants expressed in the deed.” Shale D. Stiller

In addition, the congregation argued that the covenants — many of them dated or legally unenforceable, such as those prohibiting “negro” residents — were in many respects ambiguous.“I don’t think it clearly expresses anything either way,” said Shale D. Stiller, a lawyer for the defendant congregation. “And it’s certainly not clearly expressed as to whether [the subject property] should have those restrictive covenants applied to it.”Stiller also argued that the plaintiffs themselves have come to court with unclean hands.“We have plaintiffs in this case who have violated a whole slew of restrictive covenants expressed in the deed,” Stiller said. “People can do anything they want and nobody says anything about it until the defendant comes along and wants to use [a residence] as a house of prayer,” he added.But the judge was unimpressed by the unclean hands line of argument.“Don’t even go there,” she said later in the hearing. “Clearly there are some inequities that exist on both sides.” Heard recalled the alleged “subterfuge” by the congregation, which obtained title through an out-of-state buyer.Domino theoryThe community group’s attorney, Donald A. Rea, returned repeatedly to the harm the neighbors perceived in being deprived of the right to enforce the covenants. “These covenants are a very strong shield for the neighbors to prevent what’s outside the neighborhood from encroaching in on it and crushing it,” Rea said. “If this happens at the perimeter, the next time it happens, it will take place inside the perimeter.“This is one of the few places left around the city where children can walk safely in the streets, that hasn’t been torn apart by what goes on outside of it,” Rea said, adding that his clients feared a “domino effect” if the court were to allow the synagogue to open. “There’s nothing to stop all of that encroaching in on this neighborhood and destroying it,” he added, if the community could not enforce its own restrictive covenants.Heard said that she will issue an order by early this afternoon.