A federal judge questioned a state delegate Monday on his motivations for organizing town halls and sending letters to Harford County officials urging them to cease issuing permits to a retirement community being marketed to Muslim buyers.
U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III frequently addressed Del. Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore and Harford, while the delegate was on the witness stand as part of a multiday hearing about a Joppatowne development the builders allege has stalled after the county gave into public into public pressure to halt the project because of its connection to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
The county contends the development has been treated like any other project and had permitting and bond issues that needed to be addressed.
Impallaria said he began receiving calls and emails from constituents last summer expressing concerns about the project, which broke ground in April 2017. Photographs had circulated on social media of a religious ceremony held at the groundbreaking.
When pressed by Russell, Impallaria summarized the concerns he heard as a rumor the community would be exclusively Muslim with a mosque, which he believed would violate the federal Fair Housing Act.
Impallaria organized several town hall meetings in the community beginning in early September. Representatives from the companies that owned the land were not present at the first meeting nor were county employees, though both were contacted and invited.
A lawyer for the builders asked why Impallaria’s letter announcing the meeting included inaccurate details about the development, which was zoned for people ages 55 and older, including that it was open to young families but would be “members only.”
Impallaria said he relied on a website advertising the community, which indicated younger individuals could purchase homes.
But Russell repeatedly asked what “members only” meant and why Impallaria did not say the citizens’ concern was about the community being exclusively Muslim.
“You don’t want to say what your constituents meant to say,” he said.
Impallaria said he wanted to see proper procedures followed and he has not discriminated.
“I think the public deserves answers in situations like this,” he said. He is the plaintiff in a Harford County Circuit Court lawsuit seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the county to withdraw the permits for a community center on the property because it is in violation of a court order.
The plaintiffs in federal court are asking Russell to order the county to allow the development to proceed.
Russell appeared baffled by the county’s refusal to issue use-and-occupancy permits for the four completed homes with buyers ready to move in. By stymieing the project, the county was not only losing out on the chance to provide jobs during construction but also tax dollars from the “law-abiding, decent human beings” who want to live there, Russell added.
“You’re going to lose millions in tax revenue by not having the project done to begin with,” he said to the county’s lawyers.
The county argues performance bonds in place when OT LLC purchased the property after the developer went bankrupt were no longer valid. Russell said that would mean the county didn’t exercise due diligence in calling the bonds and its taxpayers would be on the hook.
“I’m not quite sure that’s in the county’s best interest,” he said.
Russell said determining the validity of the bonds is one of the key issues he needs to make a ruling on as a part of the proceedings.
William R. Luther Jr., managing partner of OT and CEO of Gemcraft Homes Inc., which is contracted to build the units, testified that he asked multiple parties to look into the property when he considered buying it because he wanted developed land ready for houses. He was informed that the bonds held by the previous owner were still in effect and he would not need to obtain new ones.
In April of last year, Luther said he requested permission from the county to consolidate several units to make a community center, which would be multi-purpose but used for daily prayers, and the approval process took longer than he expected.
Soon after the groundbreaking, Luther said he began getting requests from the county he was not used to as well as almost daily site visits and other oversight.
A lawyer with the county questioned Luther’s thoroughness in ensuring the land was ready to be built on and that the stormwater management plan was adequate. Bradley Neitzel said the county code requires the property owner be issued any bonds and the owner also had to submit the stormwater management plan.
Testimony is expected to continue through Wednesday.
The case is OT LLC et al. v. Harford County, Maryland et al., 1:17-cv-02812-GLR.