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Developer of controversial affordable housing project in East Towson threatens legal action over county bill they claim would kill project

Red Maple Place, an affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on the undeveloped land pictured to the right from East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson.
Red Maple Place, an affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on the undeveloped land pictured to the right from East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. (Libby Solomon/Towson Times)

Claiming a proposed County Council bill may violate the Fair Housing Act, the nonprofit seeking to build a widely opposed affordable housing project in East Towson says it will “pursue legal action” if the bill, which would drastically reduce the height of the planned building, passes.

Homes for America, the Annapolis-based affordable home developer that is proposing the 56-unit Red Maple Place project on land nearby residents say is unsuitable for development, in a letter to County Councilman David Marks said a bill he introduced last month would “effectively kill the development after two years of work by Homes for America in good faith,” wrote Dana Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit.

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If the bill passes, Johnson stated that Homes for America would seek legal action on the grounds that levying the zoning restriction would be a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which aims to prevent discrimination and reverse housing segregation.

Saying that Homes for America has not worked with neighboring Towson residents to alter a housing project they fear would worsen flooding in the area, Marks’ bill would effectively pare the height of the planned four-story building to no more than 30 feet, or roughly two stories.

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The bill broadly applies to all multifamily buildings on land zoned Residence, Apartment, Elevator, or R.A.E.2.

The bill was introduced just a few weeks before two scheduled development hearings for Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing complex proposed by Annapolis-based Homes for America near Historic East Towson and the Harris Hills condominium community.

If the bill passes, Marks said in October, “I suspect [the developer] will have to go back to the drawing board.”

On Friday morning, Marks reiterated in an emailed response that his concerns with the project are its size and scale, “something the developer has failed to address in two years of discussions."

“My legislation does not block any affordable housing from being built here. It allows for a smaller project that better reflects the Historic East Towson neighborhood," he said.

The project is scheduled to go before the Design Review Panel on Nov. 10 and before county planners on Nov. 19.

Project opponents have said it’s too big for the 2.5-acre piece of land on which it’s proposed between Pennsylvania Avenue and Joppa Road.

Under the height restriction proposed by Marks, any multifamily building within 500 feet of the Downtown Towson District would be limited to just over two stories.

But Johnson said changing the number of units available in the building would jeopardize the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit the nonprofit affordable homebuilder was awarded in a competitive process.

“It is not possible to shrink the size of the project,” Johnson said.

As planned, Red Maple Place would create 22 one-bedroom units, 17 two-bedroom units and 17 three-bedroom units, with five of those apartments priced at market rate, Johnson said.

Saying that “Baltimore County has a moral and a legal obligation to expand access to affordable housing in areas of opportunity,” county spokesman Sean Naron in a statement said County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s administration “remains committed to that work,” but “will continue to monitor any proposed adjustments to the project during the ongoing development process.”

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Baltimore County, per a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is legally required to add 1,000 more affordable housing units by 2027 to settle a housing discrimination complaint, and the HUD agreement encourages those units to be built in wealthier census tracts.

To date, the county has approved agreements for 506 affordable housing units, Naron said. The county has already approved $2.1 million in assistance for the project in the form of a 40-year loan.

Marks, a Republican who represents the Towson area, said the county doesn’t have much free land in more affluent census tracts, but that Towson is one of those areas — although, Marks said, looking at census-level data alone doesn’t paint a full picture of Historic East Towson’s structural challenges.

Founded by freed slaves in the 1850s, the neighborhood is historically Black and poorer than other areas of the county seat. It also already has two affordable housing buildings, Tabco Towers and Virginia Towers, and has the fourth-largest concentration of affordable housing units in the county, according to data provided by the county.

The census tract in which Red Maple Place is proposed has a median household income of $49,514, with 20.5% of the population living in poverty, according to five-year estimates from the American Community Survey between 2012 and 2016.

According to data provided by the county, the vast majority of affordable housing has been concentrated in census tracts in Owings Mills, Woodlawn, Perry Hall and East Towson.

Johnson said Homes for America is “committed to providing affordable housing ... in areas that have access to good jobs, schools, [adequate] transit — this location very squarely” meets that criteria.

“We feel very good about what we’re doing here,” she said.

The Harris Hills Condo Association and the Green Towson Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group, say the land is prone to flooding and that more development could worsen stormwater runoff downhill from the building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Johnson said existing storm drainage “will probably be helped by the project.”

“We will stabilize the hillside, we will plant more trees [and install] stormwater management devices,” she said.

Beth Miller, an architect and founding member of the Green Towson Alliance, said in an email that the group supports Marks' bill, and that reducing the size of the building “has the potential to have less impact on those sensitive environmental features depending on the building design and variances that allow encroachment.”

It also would bring properties whose current zoning allows for much taller buildings than the building height common throughout East Towson into alignment with the Towson Community Plan, which calls for smaller-scale development in the area, Miller said.

Even so, the height restrictions don’t preclude the developer from encroaching on the full 100-foot forest buffer required for county streams and wetlands, Miller said. Homes for America received a variance from the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to reduce its buffer requirements on the land.

To residents of Historic East Towson, the project further erodes a community whose borders have been chipped away over the decades through encroaching development.

Nancy Goldring, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association and a Historic East Towson resident, said Marks' bill would bring Red Maple Place into adherence with community plans that date back to 1992.

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“The argument 'not in my neighborhood’ does not fly here,” Goldring said. “All we’re saying here is not on that piece of property.”

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It would “result in an environmental nightmare for us,” she added.

Goldring has floated a nearby existing building, suggesting it be repurposed into affordable housing units by Homes for America to preclude the Red Maple construction. That idea was shot down, she said.

Since the project is in an established design review area, it is subject to an added layer of scrutiny by the county’s Design Review Panel. The Nov. 10 virtual meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m., is open to the public through WebEx, and those who want to watch must register. Details for how to register will be posted on the county website.

The project then will go before county planners in a WebEx meeting at 9 a.m. on Nov. 18. The County Council will discuss the height restriction bill at its Nov. 10 meeting at 4 p.m., with a vote scheduled for Nov. 16.

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