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Council hears support for bill that could downsize East Towson development, concern measure could lead to lawsuit

While many Towson residents voiced support Tuesday for a bill that would effectively cut in half the height of the proposed Red Maple Place housing development, Baltimore County’s attorney testified to the county council that its passage would make the county vulnerable to a lawsuit for violating the Fair Housing Act.

The bill up for discussion, proposed by County Councilman David Marks, restricts the height of multifamily buildings within 500 feet of the downtown Towson district to no more than 30 feet, or roughly two-and-a-half stories tall.

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But much of Tuesday’s discussion of this bill focused on Red Maple Place, a proposed 56-unit affordable housing complex nearing the end of its development review process. It would be located on Joppa Road on a sloping piece of land where opponents say development would exacerbate stormwater runoff into a branch of the Herring Run river.

Dana Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Homes for America which is developing the project, told the council that the Annapolis-based nonprofit would pursue legal action if the bill is passed. She said the bill’s adoption would kill the project.

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Red Maple Place is opposed by residents of Historic East Towson, Baltimore County’s oldest African-American community, environmental protection advocates at the Green Towson Alliance and the adjacent Harris Hills Condominium Association.

The size of the proposed building and the units offered can’t be changed, Johnson said, because the developer has already received “significant subsidies” through the state and federal programs that preclude altering projects that have received credits.

Johnson was backed by several organizations, including the Public Justice Center, the ACLU of Maryland, the NAACP and Disability Rights Maryland, which in a letter to county attorney James Benjamin pointed to stipulations under the Fair Housing Act that makes it illegal to “discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap.”

“Targeting specific projects, like Red Maple Place, at this late stage of the development process will have a chilling effect and make it even more difficult to attract developers to pursue affordable housing projects in the county,” read a statement from the counsel for Voluntary Compliance Agreement complainants.

The VCA is a group of attorneys aimed to hold the county accountable for its agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016 to resolve a housing discrimination complaint.

Under that agreement, the county must add 1,000 affordable housing units by 2027 to settle a housing discrimination complaint. The county has already approved $2.1 million in assistance for the project in the form of a 40-year loan.

To date, the county has approved agreements for 506 affordable housing units, according to the county, but the VCA counsel said the county must have 570 units approved by the end of this calendar year, per the agreement.

Benjamin acknowledged concerns over the proposed development’s impact on stormwater runoff, school overcrowding and traffic, but “the question is whether or not this would have a disparate impact on a protected group of individuals.

“I am concerned about that, again from a fair housing standpoint,” Benjamin said during the meeting. “If this bill were to pass, and a lawsuit is filed, it could expose the county to some liability.”

Marks, a Towson Republican, contends that “a smaller project will still help Baltimore County meet its obligation to that agreement,” and that the developer was taking “an all or nothing” approach.

Earlier in the meeting, Council Chair Cathy Bevins shared her concerns..

“No one benefits when you take large pockets of poverty and you add more people to it,” Bevins said. “Even in a brand new shiny building. And you have overcrowded schools right there as well.”

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Phoebe Letocha, a Towson resident, said that school overcrowding was already “an extreme issue” in the area.

Towson High School, within the school district Red Maple is zoned for, is already nearing 129% capacity.

“We need greater diversity of [income] in Towson, however we have a capacity [issue] that’s projected to continue for at least the next 10 years with no funding solution,” she said.

In its letter, the VCA counsel noted “proposed affordable housing projects … often face fierce NIMBY [Not in my backyard] attitudes.”

But Red Maple Place opponents reject that characterization, and say the issue is one of “environmental racism,” meaning that communities of color routinely and disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental health hazards through policies that relegate them to areas that pose health hazards.

“This is the protection of the last green space in East Towson, as well as respect for a community that has been exploited by Baltimore County for many years,” said Deborah Kleinmann of the Greater Baltimore Sierra Club.

Homes for America was given a variance from the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to reduce the 100-foot forest buffer required for county streams and wetlands to 25 feet.

It’s the Historic East Towson community that “is the victim of NIMBY discussions,” said David Riley, president of the Knollwood Community Association in a neighborhood that sits south of Historic East Towson, given the encroachment into Historic East Towson over the decades — like the BGE substation in the heart of the community, a bypass that cut through the neighborhood and the proliferation of rental units in the broader area.

Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County NAACP chapter, opposed the bill, noting “this isn’t the first attempt to eliminate affordable housing” in Baltimore County, which he also described as deeply segregated.

While much of the conversation diverted from the substance of the bill at hand, some bill supporters said that the building as proposed would awkwardly tower over nearby properties and doesn’t comply with design standards adopted for the community in 1992.

At a separate meeting Tuesday evening, the county Design Review Panel conditionally approved the Red Maple Place project, asking that Homes for America change the color of the brick on the building, but advised that they did not have to return to the panel for review.

The project then will go before county planners in a WebEx meeting at 9 a.m. on Nov. 18. The County Council will vote on the bill at its Nov. 16 meeting.

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