Harford council approves hiring outside lawyer to defend suit over 'Muslim' housing development

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The Harford County Council granted a request this week by County Attorney Melissa Lambert to hire an outside firm to help the county with its defense in the ongoing federal lawsuit filed against it over the Ansar Housing development in Joppatowne.

“Given the complexities of the litigation, coupled with the volume of documents which we know will only become more numerous, and the possibility of appeals — all of this taken into consideration is just too much for the one attorney in my office that I have assigned this [case],” Lambert said during the council’s legislative session Tuesday evening, the council’s last session until early September.

The council approved the hiring of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP, of Baltimore.

Rosenberg is the same firm the county hired, with the council’s blessing, in May to assist with its appeal of a $45.4 million judgement levied by a Harford County jury in April in the nearly 30-year battle to build a rubblefill in the Gravel Hill community outside Havre de Grace.

The county is appealing the rubblefill judgement to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

The federal lawsuit over Ansar Housing, OT LLC et al v. Harford County Maryland et al, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland last September as Forest Hill builder Bill Luther battled with the county government over the development of 48 houses along Trails Way in Joppatowne, on land near the Gunpowder River.

His company, Gemcraft Homes Inc., and OT LLC, the listed property owner of the lots, are the plaintiffs, along with Ajaz A. Kahn and Shades and Springs Inc., the nonprofit entity formed to help members of the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community purchase the townhouses being built in the new community.

Ground was broken for Ansar in the spring of 2017. It has been billed as a “mini-peace village” for elderly Ahmadiyya Muslims.

The project sparked intense opposition in Joppatowne, as people were concerned Ansar would be a Muslim-only community. The state legislators whose district includes Joppatowne, Republican Dels. Rick Impallaria, Pat McDonough and Kathy Szeliga, led several community forums about the project last summer.

Impallaria and McDonough, who are represented by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, are named as defendants, along with Harford County, County Executive Barry Glassman, Director of Administration Barry Glassman, Lambert and Public Works Director Joseph Siemek.

Luther himself, who is not listed as a plaintiff, said in a community forum in October 2017 that he filed the suit to move the project forward after the county stopped issuing building permits as well as use and occupancy permits that would allow residents to move into 14 dwellings under construction.

County officials said at the time the permits would be on hold until they and the builder could work out issues related to infrastructure bonds, the roads, water and sewer and stormwater management.

A hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction, filed by the plaintiffs, started on June 4 and concluded June 11, Lambert told the council. The parties are awaiting the judge’s ruling, and the case is expected to go to trial, she said.

Until that hearing, Lambert said, she was under the belief the case had been “effectively managed by the law department as we were moving forward.”

But Lambert said there were seven attorneys present for the plaintiffs, compared to the county’s one staff attorney.

The Law Department has six staff attorneys total, and they have multiple duties related to providing legal assistance and representation in court for the county government’s 13 departments, Lambert said.

“It became clear as the days went on that the county was in need of assistance to help [with] keeping up with the multiple attorneys on the other side,” she said.

Lambert said Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP has a “strong litigation and appellate practice.”

“I am confident that, with their expertise and resources, that together we will be able to properly defend the county’s interest in these matters,” she said.

Her request also covers having the same firm defend the county in a separate action Impallaria filed against it in Circuit Court in late November 2017 to compel a judicial review of the county’s approval of the site plan for Ansar.

Impallaria filed on behalf of himself and seven Joppatowne residents opposed to the project, including several people who live in houses built on Trails Way in 2006, long before Ansar was conceived.

Councilman James McMahan noted there have been allegations of discrimination made in the first case, which Lambert said puts it under federal court jurisdiction.

“That puts this case in a much bigger league than we can possibly handle at your level,” McMahan.

The council approved the request, 6-1. Councilman Mike Perrone, whose district includes Joppatowne, voted against it.

He objected to the short notice from Lambert about hiring outside counsel, which he said has become a rule rather than an exception when the county attorney makes such requests.

Perrone said he learned about the request about four hours before the meeting, even though eight days had elapsed between then and the end of the hearing.

Lambert said she needed the time to first determine if outside counsel was needed and then evaluate which would be the best firm to hire. Plus, it was the council’s final meeting of the summer.

“I would not have the opportunity to come before you in the summer and make this request,” Lambert said.

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