This story is updated from an earlier version.
Joppatowne area residents, who say they are frustrated with a lack of answers from county government, vented their concerns last week at a community meeting organized by state Del. Rick Impallaria about houses being built along Trails Way and the possibility the development is reserved exclusively for members of a Muslim organization.
No representatives of the Harford County government, other than Councilman Mike Perrone, were present at the meeting held Thursday night at the Joppa-Magnolia fire hall to discuss the development, known as Old Trails or Rivers Run. Fire company representatives estimated approximately 175 people attended.
A discussion about the development also is planned at a meeting of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Advisory Board on Monday night at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Southern Precinct beginning at 7 p.m. Paula Mullis, chair of the board, which is one of several area advisory boards created by the county executive, said county administration officials have been invited to attend.
County Executive Barry Glassman confirmed Monday afternoon that Director of Administration Billy Boniface would be present at the session to discuss the status of Rivers Run from the county administration’s standpoint.
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, which has since been removed.
Extensive information about the project is, however, still available on Majlis Ansarullah USA’s website at http://dev.ansarusa.org/ansar-housing-complex.
The complex is billed as a “mini-peace village” for Ahmadi Muslims, and members who are 55 or older would get priority in purchasing houses, according to the website.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is an “international revival movement within Islam” founded in 1889, according to the community’s website.
Impallaria, whose district includes Joppatowne, organized Thursday’s meeting at the request of Gina Pimentel, of Joppatowne, a sales associate with Long & Foster Real Estate in Bel Air.
“This is reverse fair housing,” said Pimentel, who sold one of four existing houses on Trails Way in 2016 and is concerned about how her client and any non-Muslim neighbors will be affected by the new development.
Those four houses were built in 2006, part of a 56-lot development proposed along the Gunpowder River that previously had been the subject of nearly three decades of litigation with Harford County and state’s Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission.
Though finally approved under a 2002 court settlement, the development languished again until this spring, when construction began on new attached townhouses — or villas.
As of the middle of August, Harford County had approved permits for 14 units and was reviewing five more, Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for county government said. A handful of those units are under roof.
Pimentel and other Joppatowne residents at Thursday’s meeting questioned the information circulated on the Internet this spring that the community is being marketed exclusively to Muslim families.
Under the 2002 court settlement, which dealt with the property’s location within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, buyers of the homes must meet the requirement that at least one resident be 55 years or older, to minimize impact on the neighboring Gunpowder River ecosystem.
Impallaria, Perrone and Pimentel were part of a panel that fielded questions from the audience. State Dels. Pat McDonough and Kathy Szeliga, who also represent Joppatowne in Annapolis, were on the panel along with Mullis, the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Advisory Board chair.
Impallaria expressed his frustration that no one from the county executive’s office, county attorney’s office or departments that handle planning and permitting matters were present.
“All we can do is request them to be here,” Impallaria said.
Glassman said Monday, however, that he had planned all along to have representatives at Monday’s Joppatowne CAB meeting, which was scheduled more than a month ago, weeks before Impallaria decided to hold his meeting.
“I had told Rick [Impallaria] there was no reason for us to attend two meetings just days apart,” Glassman said.
From the county’s standpoint, Glassman said, the developer, who has been listed in county records as Gemcraft Homes, of Forest Hill, has to meet a number of county requirements, which have been imposed since the county learned in July that the project had a new owner.
“We told Gemcraft the bonding on the project for roads, utilities, stormwater management had expired and those needed to be rebonded,” he said. “The stormwater management also has to be updated. As a result, we stopped issuing any of the building permits after July 19.”
“The county is dealing with this strictly as a development issue, and we are doing what we would do with any developer, seeing that the code is met,” Glassman continued. “Nothing has been finalized.”
Glassman said he is aware of a certain amount of community angst surrounding who may or may not be buying houses in the community, but he said the county has “no control” over housing sales or who can buy in Rivers Run, except to the extent that the consent decree on file with the Circuit Court requires that it be an age targeted, over 55 community. He said it is up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce fair housing laws.”
He also said the county had previously sent a letter to Gemcraft, which has been acknowledged by the developer’s lawyer, that a planned community center cannot be used as a religious institution, such as a mosque, and, by code, is to be open only to residents of the community. Approval of the plat for the community center has also been held up by the county pending the developer meeting the bonding and other requires, he said.
“I have been getting a lot of calls, but there’s been no transfer of property to a religious organization or anyone else,” Glassman said. “There’s no paper trail of any unit being sold to any group.”
A key question raised during Thursday’s meeting was whether the houses could be sold to members of one religion under federal fair housing laws, which do have exceptions in cases when the property is owned by a religious organization.
But some at the meeting questioned if the Joppatowne development would qualify for such an exemption.
“You just can’t build a community and say, ‘It's only for these people,’” former County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who lives in Joppatowne, said.
State property records indicate all lots along Trails Way, except those previously sold in 2006, are owned by OT LLC, which has the same address as Gemcraft Homes.
“If he sells the lots directly to the buyers, he’s not a religious organization so how would that be legal?” Perrone asked.
Bill Luther, president of Gemcraft Homes, has not answered repeated requests from the The Aegis to discuss the project. Baltimore attorney Jeffrey Scherr, who represents OT LLC, also has declined to comment.
Representatives for Majlis Ansarullah USA did not answer repeated phone messages and email requests for comment.
Impallaria urged everyone present to contact county agencies as well as Gemcraft to see if they could purchase a house on Trails Way.
“Push the buttons of those who don't want to be bothered,” he said.
After Perrone said he talked with Luther about the project last fall, members of the audience took him to task for not informing the community. Perrone, however, said those discussions were confidential, as the project was not up for any county approvals at the time.
“Once a matter becomes public, it’s out there for the world to know about, but when conversations and contracts are still in the private stage, privacy rights must be respected,” Perrone wrote in an emailed statement after the meeting.
He said Friday that Luther “didn’t say the community would be restricted to Muslim buyers. He said he was working with a Muslim community to build townhouse units.”
“There won’t be anything in any deed or document that says this is going to be a Muslim community,” Perrone added. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to buy there.”
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there as to who might buy the rest of [the lots],” he said, referring to the 30-plus lots for which permits have not been applied yet.
He said he also talked with Luther Friday about the eroding cliff face overlooking the end of Trails Way, which he said Luther assured him would be taken care of.