Concerns about 'Muslim only' development spark controversy in Joppatowne

This story is updated from an earlier version.

As Joppatowne area residents continued to express concerns Monday about the potential for a Muslims-only development, a high-ranking Harford County official told them the project will be “treated like any other” when it comes to enforcing code regulations.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the county has any say or authority over who can buy houses in the development, which is known by the names Old Trails or Rivers Run, county Director of Administration Billy Boniface said.

Boniface fielded questions and listened to comments from about 125 people from among the crowd crammed into a room at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s Southern Precinct Station in Edgewood for the monthly meeting of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Advisory Board.

Community angst has been sparked by information posted on the Internet this summer that Rivers Run is being marketed as a community for Muslim families.

Last spring, members of the Silver Spring-based Majlis Ansarullah USA celebrated the groundbreaking of the “Ansar Housing Complex,” according to photos and information the organization posted on the Internet. They have since been removed.

Extensive information about the project is, however, still available on Majlis Ansarullah USA’s website at dev.ansarusa.org/ansar-housing-complex.

The complex is billed as a “mini-peace village” for Ahmadi Muslims, and members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who are 55 or older would get priority in purchasing houses, according to the Majlis Ansarullah USA website.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is an “international revival movement within Islam” founded in 1889, according to that community’s website.

The meeting Monday came just days after about 175 people attended a similar meeting on the development held at the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company hall on Sept. 7. Several speakers at that meeting, which was organized by state Del. Rick Impallaria, who represents Joppatowne in Annapolis, said restricting sales to members of one religion is discriminatory. Federal fair housing laws, however, permit such religion-based communities under certain conditions.

The county did not send a representative to the Sept. 7 meeting County Executive Barry Glassman said Monday, because it had already planned to have Boniface speak at Monday’s community advisory board session, which had been scheduled weeks earlier.

Boniface said the developer of 47 townhouses/villas planned along Trails Way next to the Gunpowder River “has several issues he needs to address,” among them the posting of updated performance bonds for roads, water and sewer lines, and stormwater management, as well as what Boniface called “the biggest hurdle” — the filing of a completely new stormwater plan.

He identified the builder as William Luther, who owns Gemcraft Homes in Forest Hill. But as several people noted and Boniface agreed, the land where the houses are being built is owned by an entity called OT LLC.

No representatives of the developer spoke or were in evidence Monday.

Tuesday afternoon, however, Luther provided The Aegis via email with an exchange of correspondence between him and Impallaria last week in which Luther wrote the community is “open to all” and not reserved for members of a particular religion and added: “If you know of potential purchasers for homes on these lots, please have them contact us.”

In an accompanying letter to The Aegis, Luther wrote: “Contrary to what Del. Impallaria and others said at that [Sept. 7] meeting...the Old Trails community is restricted to 55-year-old residents and is not limited to a ‘religious sect.’ There are no Fair Housing Act Violations.”

Previous requests by The Aegis for comment via phone and email to Majlis Ansarullah USA have not been answered.

Boniface said the county’s requirements would be the same for any development that has changed ownership, which this one did earlier this year, he said. Some of the requirements that need to be met “are not a huge challenge” for the developer he said, but the lapsing of the stormwater management plan was “a big mistake.”

He said the county has been working with the developer to bring the project into compliance but he also conceded the county’s position is likely to prompt a lawsuit from the developer. Meanwhile approval for nine other building permits applied for is on hold, as is final approval of a site plan for a community center.

But Boniface also was adamant the county cannot and will not be involved in regulating who the houses can be sold to once the development is in code compliance and use and occupancy permits are issued.

The latter can’t happen at this point, he added, while saying that construction can continue on permits the county issued earlier this year for 14 of the units before it realized the project wasn’t in compliance with bonding and stormwater requirements.

He said the county would not have anything to do with how houses are marketed in the development other than its being party to the 2004 court-ordered consent decree that requires one resident of every home by age 55 or older.

“We do not get involved in those kinds of issues,” he said in regard to selling the houses. Complaints about housing discrimination should be addressed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Boniface said.

The so-called age-targeted or age-restricted covenant was imposed after years of litigation involving the property and its location within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area zone, which had not been established when initial plans were filed. The restriction runs with the property.

Boniface still came under criticism from several in the audience, including Impallaria and Joppatowne area County Councilman Mike Perrone, for allowing construction on the first 14 houses to continue, but Boniface responded that even if the houses are finished, they can’t be occupied until the county is satisfied that all other code requirements have been met.

“They can build the houses but they can’t put anybody in them,” he said.

“The county has to apply the law the same as they would to any other development across the board in order to show that they are being fair, and that is what we are doing,” he said. “I know there are some people who are upset ... with the development. I know the developer is very upset that the county is not letting the development move forward.”

“So, I guess we are doing something right, because everybody is mad at us,” he said to laughter from the audience.

That was, however, one of the few moments of levity.

Mustafa M. Sidik, a Joppa resident who identified himself as a Muslim, said opposing a development because a particular religious group settles there isn’t right.

“We must afford equality to all religions,” Sidik said. “Now, if there is an issue where we are discriminating against everyone … then, yes, I would have an issue, too. I would be right there with you guys.”

“So, what I’m saying is, if you guys have a problem with this being a Muslim community you should take a long hard look on yourselves,” he said. “If you have an issue with this community because its a permit issue, because it’s a legal issue, then absolutely, I’m right there with you.”

In addition to Impallaria and Perrone, other elected officials who attended were Dels. Kathy Szeliga and Glen Glass, who also represent Joppa, and County Councilman Curtis Beulah.

Impallaria announced he plans to hold another town hall meeting on the development Sept. 26 at the Joppa-Magolia fire hall beginning at 7 p.m.

Aegis staff member David Anderson contributed to this report.

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