Congregation Ariel Russian Cmty. Synagogue, Inc. v. Balt. Cnty., Civil Action No. GLR-17-910

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtGeorge L. Russell, III United States District Judge
Decision Date28 March 2018
Docket NumberCivil Action No. GLR-17-910

BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. GLR-17-910


March 28, 2018


THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants Baltimore County, Maryland (the "County") and the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County, Maryland's (the "Board")1 Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7) and Motion to Drop the Board of Appeals as a Defendant Under Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX (the "Motion to Drop") (ECF No. 12). This suit arises out of the Board's denial of Plaintiffs Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, Inc.'s ("ARIEL") proposed plan to build a synagogue and make a home for Plaintiff Rabbi Vevel Belinsky. The Motions are ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Motion to Dismiss and deny without prejudice the Motion to Drop.

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A. Factual Background

ARIEL wants to provide a synagogue for its congregation and residence for Rabbi Belinsky on their property in Pikesville, Maryland. (Compl. ¶¶ 40, 88-89, ECF No. 1). In 2014, ARIEL purchased approximately three acres of property located at 8420 (Lot 3), 8430 (Lot 3A), and 8432 (Lot 3B) Stevenson Road, Pikesville (the "Property") as the location for its synagogue and home for Rabbi Belinsky. (Id. ¶ 88). A 2,000 square foot barn and 2,381 square foot two-story house are currently located on the Property. (Id. ¶¶ 92, 109). ARIEL plans to raze the barn and construct a synagogue in its place. (Id. ¶¶ 110-13). ARIEL would maintain the house as a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 111).

The Property is zoned D.R.1 (Density Residential 1) and R.C.5 (Rural Conservation/Rural Residential).3 (Id. ¶ 90). Both D.R.1 and R.C.5 zoning districts authorize a place of worship as a permitted use. (Id. ¶ 91). The Property is, however, subject to various other zoning constraints set forth in the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations ("BCZR"), including Residential Transition Area use restrictions ("RTA Regulations") and Final Development Plan regulations ("FDP Regulations"). (Id. ¶¶ 145, 163, 181). The FDP Regulations provide "another overlay of zoning regulations on top

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of the general use regulations and RTA [R]egulations." (Id. ¶ 182). The BCZR states that once a Final Development Plan ("FDP") has been approved, the lot cannot be used, nor can any construction take place, that is inconsistent with the FDP. (Id. ¶ 184). The BCZR sets forth procedures for amending an FDP. (Id. ¶ 185).

The Property is governed by an FDP that was approved on February 16, 2006. (Id. ¶¶ 186, 205). The FDP covered Lot 3, and because ARIEL wanted to consolidate Lots 3, 3A, and 3B, it filed a Petition for a Special Hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings for Baltimore County, Maryland in April 2015.4 (Id. ¶¶ 205-06, 243). ARIEL's Petition sought: (1) "permission to locate the synagogue within the D.R.1 zone"; (2) "a finding that the plan complied with the RTA [Regulations] for a 'new church'"; and (3) "confirmation that the existing home on the Property could remain as a parsonage." (Id. ¶ 243). On June 3, 2015, Kenneth and Jessamyn Abel, the owners of 8418 Stevenson Road, which is located next to the Property, also filed a Petition for a Special Hearing. (Id. ¶¶ 97, 248). The Abels sought a decision regarding whether ARIEL's Petition complied with the requirements for amending an FDP. (Id.) In June 2015, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presiding over ARIEL's and the Abels' Petitions consolidated the Petitions. (Id. ¶ 249).

The ALJ, acting as Zoning Commissioner, held eight days of hearings on the Petitions between June 2015 and January 2016. (Id. ¶ 251). On January 12, 2016, the

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ALJ issued his decision. (Id. ¶ 259). The ALJ concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements "largely complied" with the RTA Regulations, but that they did not comply with the requirements for amending an FDP. (Id. ¶¶ 260-63, 265). Accordingly, the ALJ denied the FDP amendment. (See id. ¶ 265).

On January 14, 2016, ARIEL filed its appeal with the Board.5 (Id. ¶ 268). The Board held ten separate hearings on ARIEL's appeal spanning from May 2016 to January 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 270-71). During the hearings, ARIEL informed the Board of "its obligations" to avoid violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") in deciding ARIEL's Petition. (Id. ¶ 354). On January 4, 2017, the Board rendered its decision on the Petitions. (Id. ¶ 281). The Board concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements did not comply with the RTA Regulations or the requirements for amending the FDP. (Id. ¶¶ 284, 304). The Board also addressed RLUIPA's nondiscrimination provisions, but "ignored its substantial burdens provisions." (Id. ¶¶ 354, 360-61). The Board's decision prevents the Plaintiffs from developing and using the Property as a synagogue. (Id. ¶¶ 284, 393, 399).

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B. Relevant Procedural History

On April 4, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their eight-count6 Complaint, asserting the following Counts: (1) Violation of RLUIPA "Substantial Burdens," 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a) (2018) (Count I); (2) Violation of RLUIPA "Nondiscrimination," 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2) (Count II); (3) Violation of RLUIPA "Equal Terms," 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1), (Count III); (4) Violation of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3604 (2018) (Count V); (5) Violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VI); (6) Violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VII); (7) Violation of Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VIII); and (8) Violation of Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count IX). (Id. ¶¶ 418-26). All federal constitutional violations are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2018). (Id. ¶¶ 408-23). Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages and attorney's fees. (Id. at 51-52).

On May 3, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7). Plaintiffs filed an Opposition on May 17, 2017. (ECF No. 9). On May 31, 2017, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 10).

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On June 1, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Drop the Board of Appeals as a Defendant Under Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX. (ECF No. 12). On June 14, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Opposition. (ECF No. 17). To date, the Court has not received a Reply.

C. The Board's Final Opinion and Order

On March 5, 2018, while the instant Motions were pending, the Board issued its 132-page written Opinion and Order. (Suppl., ECF No. 24). The Opinion and Order largely confirms the Board's January 4, 2017 decision. In its Opinion and Order, the Board denied ARIEL's Petition to construct a synagogue on the Property. (Id. at 120). It concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements would violate RTA Regulations and that the proposed FDP amendment did not comply with FDP Regulations. (Id. at 71, 80-81, 93). The Board also determined that if converted to a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky, the existing house would violate RTA Regulations. (Id. at 59-61). Finally, although the Board acknowledged that neither ARIEL's Petition nor the Abels' Petition raised RLUIPA, it nevertheless concluded that its decision did not violate RLUIPA's substantial burdens provisions. (Id. at 94-114). Finally, the Board concluded that the RTA and FDP Regulations do not violate the constitution. (Id. at 115-19).

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A. Motion to Drop

Defendants move to drop the Board as a Defendant as to Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX of the Complaint (the "non-RLUIPA Counts") under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 21. Defendants argue that the Board is not an independent legal entity subject to suit under the non-RLUIPA Counts. The Court disagrees.

Rule 21 provides, in pertinent part: "On motion or on its own, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party." The decision to grant or deny a Rule 21 motion "lies in the discretion of the judge." Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Balt. Cty. (HVBC), No. ELH-17-804, 2017 WL 4801542, at *12 (D.Md. Oct. 24, 2017) (quoting C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure (3d ed.) § 1688, at 505)).

In HVBC, a case decided while Defendants' Motion was pending, the same defendants7—the County and the Board—moved to drop the Board as a party to the federal constitutional counts, a state constitutional count, and judicial review count, but not the plaintiff's RLUIPA counts.8 Id. at *12, 1. There, the County and the Board

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argued that the Board is not an independent legal entity subject to suit. Id. at *12. In support of their argument, they pointed to the language of § 103 of the Baltimore County Charter, which requires all lawsuits to be brought against the County.9 Id.

In HVBC, Judge Hollander discussed Prince George's Cty. v. Skillman, 2017 WL 2981871 (Md.Ct.Spec.App. July 13, 2017) (unpublished), in which the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland concluded that the Prince George's County Department of Planning, Inspection, and Enforcement ("DPIE"), was not an independent entity subject to suit based on the Prince George's Charter's language the creating the agency. HVBC, 2017 WL 4801542, at *13 (citing Skillman, 2017 WL 2981871, *3-4). The Court acknowledged that the language in the Prince George's County Charter contains similar language to § 103 of the Baltimore County Charter.10 Id. The Court then noted, however, that "the Board and its counterparts in other jurisdictions have been sued." Id. (collecting cases). Finally, the Court cited the plaintiff's acknowledgement at oral arguments that "whether the Board remains a named defendant is seemingly of no significant consequence." Id. at *13...

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