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Baltimore County judge clears Red Maple affordable housing development in East Towson

Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson.
Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore County administrative law judge greenlighted an affordable housing project in East Towson after months of hearings, ensuring plans remain on track to build 56 apartments opposed by some community members and Baltimore-area environmental groups.

Community members said they will appeal the decision.

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Planned by the Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America, Red Maple Place would build 50 affordable and 6 market rate apartments in the 400 block of E. Joppa Road, near Historic East Towson, one of the county’s oldest Black communities.

Much of the opposition to the plan is predicated on a long history of unwanted development in the neighborhood, founded by freed slaves in the 1850s. The historically Black area is poorer than others around the county seat.

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During virtual hearings held over the last few months, Red Maple opponents cited the massive and unwanted power substation built in 1952 in the heart of the neighborhood that removed 8 homes, the construction of a Towson bypass through the enclave in the 1980s, and the razing of several homes to make way for Stanley Black and Decker’s parking lot on E. Joppa Road about two decades ago.

Several critics called those projects acts of environmental racism, a term that refers to practices and policies which cause environmental health hazards for poor communities, often delineated along racial lines.

Administrative Law Judge Maureen Murphy, who presided over the case, acknowledged the “intrusions” into the neighborhood that have “caused and/or contributed to attempts to ‘erase’ this neighborhood,” calling the substation “egregious” and “an actual danger to residents there.”

But because Red Maple is proposed outside the bounds of the East Towson Community Conservation Area, she said, the project does not fall into the same category, and will not negatively impact Historic East Towson’s character.

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Nancy Goldring, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association, which has hired an attorney to represent them in the case, said the decision “was definitely a blow,” but an unsurprising one.

She pushed back on Murphy’s statement that the project did not constitute the pattern of encroaching development that has eroded the neighborhood, which spanned to York Road and Bosley Avenue, to just six blocks.

“It is in East Towson,” and regardless of where the building is built, its effect will be felt in her neighborhood, she said.

In her order, Murphy said the development plan satisfied the site requirements and regulations of the various county agencies that reviewed it — including the developer’s stormwater management plans to mitigate runoff flowing from the north into East Towson neighborhoods, a major point of contention for opponents.

The Green Towson Alliance, Sierra Club Greater Baltimore Group and Blue Water Baltimore, environmental groups against the development, have said the construction of Red Maple, which was granted a variance to reduce its 100-foot forest buffer, will eliminate half of one of the only green spaces left in East Towson.

In her order, Murphy wrote the opposite is true — that Homes for America would preserve the vegetation, trees and wetlands on a second parcel south of where the building is planned. Development on that second parcel, however, would undoubtedly and immediately impact surrounding homes, she added.

Murphy also wrote that the developer’s proposed stormwater controls would not only limit the amount of runoff, but also filter pollutants.

The construction, she added, would “greatly benefit” surrounding communities by extending an underground stormwater pipe on East Pennsylvania Avenue and directing water into an underground drain that would reduce the amount of water flowing south into the Historic East Towson neighborhood.

But environmental sustainability advocates aren’t convinced.

“I think it’s a fallacy to say that developing a site creates an improved stormwater draining situation,“ said Beth Miller, a representative of the Green Towson Alliance. “Undisturbed forest is the best stormwater management that exists.”

Current and former elected officials have debated the divisive development the last two years.

Olszewski’s administration already has approved a 40-year $2.1 million loan for the project, saying it will add much needed affordable housing units in the county, as required under the county’s 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That agreement calls for the county to add 1,000 more subsidized apartments by 2027 in wealthier census tracts to settle a housing discrimination complaint filed by the Baltimore County NAACP, which alleged a pattern of government practices that have killed affordable housing projects over the years.

Dana Johnson, president and CEO of Homes for America, has said the location within the county seat has adequate public transportation nearby and access to good-paying jobs and high-performing schools.

“Given the lack of affordable housing in the county generally, but in Towson specifically — families, people with disabilities, who live there will greatly benefit,” she said.

The next step for Homes for America is getting building permits approved.

But former state senator Jim Brochin, a Towson resident who used to live in Historic East Towson and said he is helping to pay for the attorney representing the opponents, said they will challenge the development every step of the way by appealing the decision to the county board of zoning appeals and to higher courts if necessary.

It’s not about being against affordable housing, Brochin said.

“This would never happen in Stoneleigh,” a wealthier and predominantly white West Towson neighborhood, he said. “Trampling on one of the oldest African American communities — it’s just bad public policy.”

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