State lawmakers seek review of Harford County project

State lawmakers have asked Harford County to halt development of a townhouse community in Joppatowne that an Ahmadi Muslim group promoted as being built for members of the sect.

In a letter to County Executive Barry Glassman this month, Republican Dels. Rick Impallaria, Kathy Szeliga and Pat McDonough urged the county to stop issuing permits for the homes — which are already being built along the Gunpowder River — “until a full investigation has been completed.”

The development, known as both River Run and Old Trails, has sparked concern among some nearby residents as well as numerous questions for state and local officials at community meetings.

Some residents have said they worry the new community could discriminate against non-Muslims, while one man at a recent public meeting questioned whether suspicion of the project was based on Islamophobia.

The lawmakers are seeking clarity because “confusing” and “conflicting” information has been circulating in the community, Szeliga said.

An auxiliary men’s organization of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community posted information on its website about the development, calling it a “peace village” and saying the builder “will only sell these houses” to Ahmadi Muslims.

That posting by the group, Majlis Ansarullah USA, has since been taken off the website. The developer of the property and a company seeking to purchase the development have since said the homes will be open to all.

The website had touted the project as a community of townhouses starting at $250,000 with two-car garages, and said the development would include a mosque with a 250-person capacity. County officials say the property is not zoned for a mosque or any other house of worship.

County officials, in response to the letter from the state lawmakers, say additional permits for the project were already on hold pending resolution of stormwater management and other issues. But they said no special investigation of the development is planned.

County spokeswoman Cindy Mumby said officials have sought to answer questions from constituents, but “the county doesn’t regulate private home transactions.”

“It’s the county’s responsibility to ensure that any development meets current regulations in the county code,” Mumby said. “We are doing that with this development as we would with any other.”

Shades and Springs Inc., a nonprofit established to purchase the property, said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that the development “was always open to anyone who wanted to buy a house there and it remains so.” The group also stated it would abide by county zoning regulations.

Dr. Faheem Younus, president of Shades and Springs, told The Sun members of its board of directors belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

In its statement, Shades and Springs said, “We expect River Run to become a diverse community of men and women from all walks of life. … The interested buyers thus far are doctors and lawyers, policemen and cab drivers, teachers and homemakers, who all share the core American values of liberty and justice for all.”

The group said the website material that was taken down had been written by volunteers.

“When we realized that information on [the website] was causing misunderstandings for the external audience due to lack of context and use of jargon, we unpublished it,” Shades and Springs Inc. said. “We welcome a respectful dialogue based on facts.”

Ahmadi Muslims believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in India in the 19th century, was sent as the messiah. The group has U.S. headquarters in Silver Spring and says it has tens of millions of members in more than 200 countries.

State records show the Joppatowne lots are owned by OT LLC, and county officials say the developer of the homes is Gemcraft Homes.

Gemcraft officials did not respond to requests for comment. Jeffrey Scherr, an attorney representing OT LLC, declined to comment for this article.

The property is designated for residential development of up to 56 townhouses for the elderly, with a stipulation that at least one person in each household must be 55 or older.

In its statement, Shades and Springs Inc. said it would "abide by the 55-year age restriction as per the law."

County Councilman Mike Perrone Jr., a Republican who represents Joppatowne, said much of the local controversy was sparked by the material posted on the website.

Some construction at the site is already underway based on previously issued permits. On a recent morning, heavy equipment rumbled at the site as construction crews worked.

About 10 homes are under construction. Another four homes were built about a decade ago, but the project stalled.

Renee Brooks is already living in the development. She said she became concerned when the Majlis Ansarullah USA website appeared to be marketing toward families with children and cited plans for a mosque.

“I bought here as a quiet retirement community,” she said.

She added she is worried current residents will have no voice if the majority of the neighborhood is occupied by members of a single religious group.

“What kind of vote are we going have when it comes time for the [home owners association] to call everyone for a vote?” she said. “It’s just not equal.”

Gina Pimentel, a real estate agent who sold one of the homes built a decade ago, said it’s been difficult for people to get information about the project. Current residents are concerned about being “forced” into the new community, Pimentel said.

“We wanted answers for our clients,” she said.

Delegate Impallaria said he wants the county to review whether the project violates any laws that prohibit discrimination in housing. He said he got involved after getting many calls about the project, and felt “the county was giving the residents the runaround.”

In a letter to constituents, Impallaria wrote that “the original purpose of the development has radically changed" and cited concerns “federal Fair Housing laws/regulations may be violated.”

The Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination, has an exemption that allows religious organizations to give preference to its members in certain circumstances.

However, in this case, it does not appear an exemption would apply at the Joppatowne development, said Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for fair housing.

Strupp added that any local jurisdiction that receives federal funding, as Harford County does, has “an affirmative duty to further fair housing.”

alisonk@baltsun.com

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