Harford County state Del. Rick Impallaria warned he had to be very careful about what he said in his latest community meeting Tuesday on the controversial Ansar Housing community in Joppatowne, so those who are suing him and other opponents cannot argue the defendants are anti-Muslim.
He urged the nearly 30 people gathered for the meeting in the Joppa-Magnolia fire hall to do the same, based on advice he received from a lawyer in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.
Impallaria shared with the audience the advice he said he received in an email from Meghan K. Casey, an assistant attorney general, last Friday.
“Of course you guys have to watch your words, because that's going to bear on the elected officials who are representing you,” Impallaria, a Republican who represents western Harford and eastern Baltimore counties, said.
He and the community members leading the opposition reiterated during Tuesday’s meeting what they have said in the past.
Their concerns are not that Muslims want to buy the dwellings being built along Trails Way in Joppatowne, but that the community was previously advertised as exclusive to Muslims, plus the revised design could violate a 2004 consent decree governing construction in the ecologically-sensitive area along the Gunpowder River.
The consent decree, and the county’s alleged lack of enforcement of that decree by allowing construction of a community center in a development where only houses for elderly residents could be built, was the subject of Tuesday’s meeting.
Earlier this year, the builder received preliminary county permission to eliminate a few of the planned houses and combine those lots for the planned community center, but final approval was put on hold after the county raised issues about the project’s expired stormwater management plan and then stopped issuing building permits for the houses.
Impallaria urged people to take heed of the legal advice he received, though, telling them, “We've got to be very careful of what we say.”
The builder of Ansar, Gemcraft Homes of Forest Hill, and OT LLC, owner of the 52 lots along Trails Way in Joppatowne, alleged discrimination against Muslims by the opposition in their suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore in September.
The suit was filed against Impallaria, his District 7 colleague, Republican Del. Pat McDonough, the Harford County government and county leaders, including Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and Director of Administration Billy Boniface.
The plaintiffs stated the county had stopped issuing building permits and there had been a “conspiracy” by the county and two legislators to discriminate based on the prospective homebuyers’ religion.
County officials have said they have no say in who can buy houses, and construction is on hold until issues over stormwater management and infrastructure can be resolved.
The county filed a countersuit in federal court in October, accusing Bill Luther, president and CEO of Gemcraft, of making defamatory statements against the county in the media, including accusations the county government is anti-Islamic.
The Ansar Housing Complex, which includes 48 townhouse units and a community center covering four more lots, has been billed as a “mini-peace village” for elderly members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Some postings on social media earlier in the year purported that the proposed community center will be a mosque. That claim has since been refuted by the builder and the Ahmadiyya community. County government officials also have said that the community center cannot be used as a house of worship under zoning laws, nor can it be used by anyone other than residents of the community.
The original development included 56 lots; houses were built on four lots in 2006, but the development has languished since then. The other 52 were undeveloped until construction resumed in the spring of 2017.
The four existing Trails Way homeowners are among the community members opposed to Ansar, as they are concerned about how they would fit into a majority-Muslim neighborhood.
The federal suit and counter-suit are part of a slate of legal challenges related to the Ansar development.
Gina Pimentel, of Joppatowne, filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in September. She and her husband, Jorge, own an Abingdon real estate firm, and she sold one of the four existing Trails Way houses in 2016.
Pimentel has been a vocal opponent of Ansar, and she said Tuesday she has received electronic and telephone threats and been harassed. The most recent message came in the form of a dead rodent left on her doorstep, she said.
Writ of mandamus
Impallaria filed a writ of mandamus Nov. 29 in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air. He is one of eight plaintiffs in the writ, which was filed against Harford County Attorney Melissa Lambert and Public Works Director Joseph Siemek.
The writ is meant to compel now-retired Judge Stephen M. Waldron to review the county’s pending approval of converting four lots for a community center and determine if it complies with the consent decree.
Waldron oversaw the consent decree that ended all prior litigation over development along Trails Way. That litigation involved prior owners and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“This plan limits residential development to fifty-six (56) attached homes. Homes are to be designated as Housing for the Elderly as defined by Harford County Zoning Code,” according to the consent decree, a copy of which was included with copies of the writ passed out during Tuesday’s meeting.
The consent decree states it cannot be modified, “except in writing and signed by all the Parties hereto.”
The decree, dated March 10, 2004, was signed by Harford County People’s Counsel Margaret Attanasio, who represented about 120 neighboring residents, Nancy L. Giorno, then-senior assistant county attorney, Robert S. Lynch, attorney for the former owner/developer, Old Trails Partnership and Marianne D. Mason, deputy counsel for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and attorney for the Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays.
“We’re saying to the judge, ‘Tell the county to live up to the consent decree that the people signed, and it’s that simple,’” Impallaria said.
Tammy Baczynskyj, who lives near the Trails Way construction site, expressed concern for future residents’ safety.
“We’ve been told that there are erodible soils back there,” she said.
Baczynskyj, another writ of mandamus plaintiff, has lived on Foster Knoll Drive since the late 1980s. She said she was one of the 120 residents represented by the people’s counsel for the consent decree.
Impallaria said he believes the Ahmadiyya Muslims who have been encouraging followers to buy in the new development have been “victimized” and “sold a bill of goods.”
He said he hopes there will not be a court date on his writ and the county will follow the consent decree.
“We're not filing it for showmanship,” he said. “We're filing it because it's the law and they [the county] should follow it.”