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Baltimore County appeals board overturns approval of Red Maple Place affordable housing project in East Towson

Baltimore County’s Board of Appeals voted against a controversial affordable housing development in East Towson, the county confirmed Wednesday, and the developer says they will appeal the decision in Circuit Court.

The vote reverses a ruling by a county administrative law judge in March approving the project, a 56-unit building planned on a plot of undeveloped land along East Joppa Road east of its intersection with Fairmount Avenue.

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The Board of Appeals office would not make a board member available to discuss the decision. The board has until Aug. 11 to issue a written opinion, according to county code. The hearing was not recorded and minutes have not yet been posted publicly.

The board decided the project was incompatible with the surrounding community, according to County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, several community members familiar with the matter and Michael McCann, an attorney representing those who have objected to the project.

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“Homes for America is deeply disappointed by [the board’s] conclusion” and will “vigorously” challenge the decision in court, wrote Dana Johnson, president and CEO of the nonprofit proposing the project, in a statement.

“As envisioned, Red Maple Place will provide desperately needed affordable housing in Towson and we remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver this opportunity,” she added.

Nancy Goldring, who has been at the forefront representing Historic East Towson in opposition to the project, said she was stunned at the reversal.

Calling the board’s decision “an act of providence,” Goldring said “we don’t feel unprepared” should Homes for America appeal in Circuit Court.

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The homes at Red Maple Place would count toward the 1,000 affordable housing units in prosperous census tracts that Baltimore County must encourage developers to build over a period of 12 years, under a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to correct decades of discrimination against Black families and people with disabilities. The county is providing a $2.1 million, 40-year loan for Red Maple Place.

The agreement was struck to settle a lawsuit brought by the Baltimore County NAACP, the defunct Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and tenants seeking housing in the county. The vast majority of the county’s affordable housing is concentrated in Owings Mills, Woodlawn, Perry Hall and East Towson.

But the county has lagged on its annual benchmarks to add affordable housing units and attorneys tasked with holding the county accountable to the agreement have warned in a letter to the county that any effort to impede Red Maple Place could be met with legal action in federal court to enforce the agreement.

“Today’s decision is a set back” in reaching the county’s compliance goals, but the Baltimore County NAACP “will continue to support this development in effort to fight for affordable and decent housing for all people,” said Tammy Rollins, director of housing for the NAACP branch.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in a statement that he “remains committed to supporting projects that fulfill the moral and legal obligations to expand access to quality, affordable housing in areas of opportunity across Baltimore County.”

But Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said of the affordable housing agreement that “goals are not everything.”

“We always have to have balance; here’s an example when a project is simply not [in line] with the community,” he said.

Marks, who has said he opposes the project in its current form, enabled the development to move forward during the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process but later attempted to reduce the size of the building. That proposal ultimately was voted down by the county council.

Red Maple opponents, which include the environmental advocacy group Green Towson Alliance, say their opposition is based on the unsuitability of the land where the project is planned. For one, they say, the proposed four-story building is too large for the 1.5-acre property.

They also say the development would worsen stormwater runoff from Joppa Road into Historic East Towson, a historically Black community whose roots date back to the 1850s when the neighborhood was founded by people formerly enslaved at the nearby Hampton Plantation.

Opponents also have objected to the building’s appearance and its traffic impact. Historic East Towson residents have said the project represents another incursion into a neighborhood that has been whittled away for decades by commercial development and county infrastructure.

They’ve previously advocated for the project to be built on infill property adjacent to the proposed site, a move they say would preserve green space without worsening flooding.

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