Bill Luther, president and chief executive of Gemcraft Homes, says his company has built more than 8,000 houses in more than 200 communities in five states since its founding in 1993. In all that time, Luther says, he never ran into a problem like the one he faces in Joppatowne — 14 homes sold, but the new owners forbidden by Harford County from moving into them.
“I’ve got a New York City police officer who wants to retire there,” Luther says. “I’ve got a cardiologist from Ohio. There’s a doctor who trains other doctors in emergency medicine. Another guy is from Dallas, the owner of an IT company who’s going to retire ...”
Those men and 10 others have purchased townhomes in a development along the Gunpowder River that this summer became known as the “Muslim development” because it was originally promoted by some members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect as a retirement community for their members.
That was the trigger of rumor and controversy.
On its website, an auxiliary organization of the Ahmadiyya community called the development a “peace village” with a mosque and claimed the builder “will only sell these houses” to Ahmadi Muslims. That posting was erased from the website, and local leaders of the Ahmadiyya community announced that the homes would be open to all prospective buyers, 55 and older. There would be no mosque, but a community center built on four of the development’s 52 lots.
Ahmadiyya Muslims handed out flyers and attended community meetings to clear the air about their plans for the River Run development.
But those efforts came after some politicians fueled fires of suspicion. Three Republican state delegates who represent the area — Rick Impallaria, Kathy Szeliga and Pat McDonough — urged the county to stop issuing permits until a full investigation was done. The county said it had already stopped the permits because of stormwater and bonding issues.
Luther doesn’t buy that. If not for the controversy over the since-dispelled rumors about an exclusive Muslim community, he says, his 14 customers would be allowed to move into their new homes.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Luther says. “I’ve never had any county refuse move-in permits.” He says issues about stormwater management and the bonding of infrastructure are usually resolved without affecting use-and-occupancy permitting.
It never happened before, Luther says, including in Harford County, where Gemstar is based and Luther lives.
“And no one I know [in home building] can give an example of it,” Luther says. “It’s most blatant.”
Luther’s company has filed a federal lawsuit against Harford officials, claiming that the county unlawfully blocked the construction of the homes in response to “anti-Islamic sentiments expressed by certain public officials and certain members of the community.”
Luther says he heard a county official make a negative crack about Muslims, and he read numerous social media postings and emails expressing hatred of the followers of Islam.
This isn’t the first time the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has been embroiled in litigation over land in Maryland. A decade ago, it tried to buy a 224-acre farm in Walkersville, Frederick County, for a mosque and retreat center. The Ahmadi Muslims planned to hold national conventions on the grounds, and that really got the local residents riled up.
Faced with opposition, the farm’s owner went to federal court to claim that town officials had blocked the sale because of anti-Muslim bias. The town ended up buying the land for $4.71 million in a settlement with the owner. (These things get expensive.)
It was around that time that I first met Faheem Younus, a leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslims. A doctor and educator, Younus created the Muslimerican blog to address Muslim and American relations after 9/11. He has made numerous media appearances and written several published essays about his religion and its message of “love for all, hatred for none.” The man is insistent about that message and consistently positive — in the face of real ugliness.
Younus has been working closely with Bill Luther to finish the River Run development. He’s had to work overtime to change minds and hearts. But that’s something he’s good at. I was not surprised to hear Younus claim that he’s winning the Harford battle out of court.
“We distributed 3,000 flyers by going door to door,” he says. “We are also holding open town halls. There is big shift of momentum among the residents who have heard us — in our favor.”
County officials would not comment on all this, citing the litigation in U.S. District Court. Friday is the deadline for the county’s response to Luther’s lawsuit.
Here’s a suggested response: Let the new homeowners move in, let the work proceed, and let whoever wants to buy a house buy a house.