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Harford Co. employees say anti-Muslim bias had no role in building-permit denials

Harford County employees told a federal judge Wednesday that anti-Muslim bias played no part in the county’s denial of permits for a stalled subdivision being marketed as a retirement community for members of a sect of Islam.

The county claims the Joppatowne project was treated like any other and had permit and bond issues that need to be resolved. The plaintiffs, including the owner, builder and a buyer, contend the county manufactured roadblocks after officials began hearing complaints from citizens who were concerned about the retirement community being exclusively Muslim. They are asking a federal judge to order the county to approve permits to allow the project to move forward.

Ground was broken on the subdivision in April 2017, and four homes were built before the developer ran into issues getting use and occupancy permits and building permits. By the time the developer met with county officials in August, there was discussion of the “Muslim issue,” according to the plaintiffs.

But Margaret Hartka, who has been with the county attorney’s office for 24 years, testified Wednesday it is standard for the county to ask the entity buying an unfinished development to obtain new permits and new bonds. In this case, the prior owner began work but went bankrupt and sold the property to OT LLC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Rose Baker, a management assistant with the county’s Bonding and Permit Administration, also testified when an incomplete subdivision changes hands, the new owner is asked to re-permit and re-bond. She emailed OT in May 2017 to tell them to do so and that no new permits would be issued until then.

On cross-examination, however, Hartka conceded that the county code says bonds remain in full force and effect until work is completed and the county’s procedure of asking the new owner to obtain bonds is not written down but merely its interpretation of the law.

Hartka also said she does not believe the bonds are still valid despite the language in the code and pointed to the opinion of the surety company that the bonds had expired.

“As a county attorney, why would you want to interpret the code so narrowly?” asked U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III. “That’s a possible direct contradiction to the county’s fiscal interest.”

Russell also suggested Hartka’s interpretation allows the insurer to collect premiums from the developer without ever having to pay out for the developer failing to do the work.

“Why is the county unjustly enriching the surety by not calling bonds?” he asked.

Work remaining

Hartka later testified there was remaining infrastructure work to be done on the development, which she described as in its “nascent stages,” and the county chose not to find the bankrupt developer in default on its bonds because the county would have to assume liability for getting the work finished.

Russell questioned Hartka on the decision not to call the bonds to get the work done or even estimate how much it would cost to do so.

“We are the government,” Hartka said. “We must be risk-averse.”

She also said the stormwater management system bonds already issued would be inadequate to cover the cost of the project because the previously approved plan, used for cost estimates in obtaining bonds, is not in compliance with new laws. The parties disagree over the relevant dates for a final stormwater management plan to be in compliance with the law.

An attorney for the nonprofit assisting with marketing the project to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community testified Tuesday when he evaluated the property before the sale, he looked at documents from the seller and the county code and determined the bonds posted by the previous developer would remain in place; OT and Gemcraft Homes Inc., the builder, would not have to re-bond and only needed building permits, which they initially obtained.

Baker testified she received documents purporting to be cancellation notices from the surety in 2017 but communicated with the county attorney’s office that she did not believe they were sufficient to cancel the bonds. She also admitted on cross-examination building permits were issued after the property changed hands, including one after the county claims it became aware of the ownership change.

The hearing was scheduled to continue Thursday.

The case is OT LLC et al. v. Harford County, Maryland et al., 1:17-cv-02812-GLR.

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