By Amy Sorter
In 2013, Rabbi Yaakov Rich established his small Orthodox shul, Congregation Toras Chaim, in a home on the 7100 block of Mumford Court, a Far North Dallas residential neighborhood. Less than two years later, trouble began between the small congregation and its neighbors. Many of the issues have been reported in the media and through court filings, with the most recent action focused on parking spaces, and a resulting lawsuit.
As the Texas Jewish Post and The Dallas Morning News reported last week, First Liberty Institute and Winston & Strawn LLP filed suit on behalf of Toras Chaim against the City of Dallas and the Dallas Board of Adjustments in Collin County (where the property is located). The lengthy May 3 filing requested that the court:
1) Issue a temporary restraining order “to prevent enforcement of an unlawful decision” passed by the city of Dallas’ Board of Adjustments April 17.
2) Hold an evidentiary hearing to reverse the above-referenced decision.
No hearing date has been set.
The Board of Adjustment’s decision focused on whether Toras Chaim qualified for an exemption — also known as a variance — from the city’s off-street parking rules. Such rules mandate that the synagogue develop 12 off-street parking spots. But Toras Chaim, as previous reports noted, believes the six it has are plenty. Still, the board denied the shul’s request.
The congregation’s attorneys said in the suit that the BOA’s decision is imposing “burdensome parking regulations on CTC.” This, in turn, the suit states, violates city, state and federal laws allowing for use of the property for religious purposes. Putting it simply, the suit alleges religious discrimination.
Chelsey Youman, First Liberty Institute counsel who is leading the team handling the suit, indicated the Board of Adjustments gave no reason for the denial. In fact, she noted, Toras Chaim worked tirelessly with the City of Dallas to ensure the building and property are in compliance with municipal regulations, including parking. “The city asked us to obtain that parking variance, as we’re not using the spaces,” she said, adding that the shul did everything it was asked to do, including obtaining a shared parking agreement, if necessary, with nearby Torah Day School.
They Said . . . They Said
BOA administrator Steve Long confirmed that the Toras Chaim variance application had been denied, though declined further comment, due to pending litigation. He did refer the TJP to the board’s April 17 agenda. The agenda listed the BOA staff’s suggestion that the variance application be denied because the applicant failed to establish that:
• Granting the variance “will not be contrary to the public interest.”
• The variance is necessary due to property restrictions.
• The hardship the variance would relieve wasn’t self-created or self-imposed on the property.
However, the lawsuit against the City of Dallas and its Board of Adjustments noted that with the first point, “it is never in the public interest to violate religious liberty rights . . .” as the neighborhood zone in which the shul resides “specifically provides for religious use.” The second point, the suit noted, can be refuted, because the property does have certain restructures, such as an adjacent homeowner association wall.
Then there is the third point, that Toras Chaim actually brought the issue on itself, by selecting the building in the first place. The suit alleges the fallacy of the argument, noting that that Toras Chaim never did anything physical to the property to bring “an otherwise conforming property into non-conformance.”
Struggles of a Congregation
Meanwhile, the argument over parking baffles spiritual leader Rich. “We never have more than two cars in the front, and maybe three or four parked in the back,” he said. “That’s the maximum, morning and evening, and it’s been like that for months and months.” On Shabbat, as has been reported before, there are no cars on the street, as congregants walk to worship. And, when it comes to special events, such as the High Holidays, “we ask our members not to park on the street,” Rich said.
Furthermore, he went on to say, the shul invited the HOA’s board to meet for brunch inside the synagogue to talk about how the neighborhood, in general, could be better. “We want to be good neighbors,” Rich added.
If Toras Chaim members aren’t parking cars on the street, then where are the cars coming from? “There are other homes in the neighborhood, residential homes being used for non-residential purposes,” Youman said, echoing points made in the BOA lawsuit. During the summer, for example, swim classes meet at one of the houses, packing the street with parked cars for hours at a time. “There are zero complaints by the neighbors,” Youman said. “The homeowners association hasn’t made a peep about it, Dallas has never enforced it, and has never made those residents jump through hoops.”
Yet residents have made it clear they don’t want a synagogue, or any religious institution, for that matter, operating on their front doorsteps. There have been plenty of neighborhood allegations over the years, one in which a woman remarked how fire truck and ambulance drivers once remarked how many cars were marked on the small street. Furthermore, a specific comment from a neighbor indicated that all houses of worship should be forbidden because “neighbors have a right to enjoy their properties as homes within a specified zoning class.”
The next question, perhaps, might be why the shul continues to remain at its current location. Rich is adamant that Toras Chaim can’t simply pick up and relocate.
“When we determined where to put this shul in the first place, we looked at a location in the neighborhood that would have the least intrusive effect,” he explained. “It had to be within walking distance of those in the neighborhood, and close proximity to where people live.” Relocating the shul, he added, would force congregants to sell their homes and buy new ones, if possible, that would be close to the new location. Relocating, Rich noted, would be highly disruptive, and could lead to “dissolution of the entire synagogue and its membership.”
Right now, Toras Chaim and its representatives are waiting on the district court decision. “We believe the law is on our side,” Youman said. “We’ve met the objective standards for parking variances and hope it can be resolved in the courts. We hope it can overturn the BOA’s decision.”