An Owings Mills couple who held prayer services in their home did not violate Baltimore County's zoning laws, according to a ruling issued yesterday.
Code official Stanley J. Schapiro said the county failed to prove that Lisa and Seth Pachino were operating a religious institution by conducting minyans, gatherings of at least 10 Jewish men, on Saturdays in the basement recreation room of their two-story brick home.
But county officials vowed yesterday to continue enforcing the regulation that requires people to obtain a permit to change the use of their home.
"I'm not going after every prayer meeting in the home or bridge meeting in the home or poker game," said Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management.
But he said he believed the Pachinos had violated the law when they announced the services in articles published in local papers. "If someone advertises, that is going beyond their four walls," Jablon said.
The county cited the Orthodox couple in April and threatened to fine them $1,000 for failing to obtain a proper permit after a neighbor, Michael Kuntz, complained about the services.
Kuntz told county officials that he was concerned that the Pachinos might attract bigger crowds to the neighborhood of large, single-family homes on Thoroughbred Lane.
The Worthington Park Community Association and other neighbors rallied to the Pachinos' defense, supporting their right to hold the services in their home. A Roman Catholic priest wrote to the code official saying a ruling against the Pachinos would threaten other religious groups that hold meetings in homes.
In his opinion, Schapiro said he found insufficient proof that the couple was operating a religious institution. The Pachinos had no dues-paying members or compensated employees, such as a rabbi, and there was no sign or other evidence on the exterior of the building to denote a synagogue, he said.
"The facts presented in this case suggest that the residence is utilized as a dwelling by residents who from time to time invite guests to join them in personal worship consistent with the central tenets of their faith," wrote Schapiro, who acts as a hearing officer in code enforcement cases.
Michael Hodes, the Pachinos' lawyer, praised the decision. "Hopefully this will send a message to the county and all counties that they have to look at the situation very carefully before acting," he said.
Hodes did not dispute the county's right to regulate the opening of churches in residential neighborhoods but said the county overreacted.
"I think it was draconian," he said. "These folks were having some friends over who were deeply religious."
Kuntz's lawyer, Stanley Fine, would not comment on the ruling.
Jablon said similar citations have been upheld in the past. Some people have successfully appealed the citations while others have not, he said. Code officials will continue to issue them if churches appear to be operating in homes without proper permits.
"I cannot allow arbitrariness," Jablon said. "I order my staff to be as objective as possible."