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Federal judge to rule next week on controversial Harford Co. development

A federal judge will rule next week on whether to order Harford County to issue relevant permits and allow a subdivision to continue construction in Joppatowne.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III heard closing arguments Monday in a hearing for the religious discrimination suit brought by the property owners, who claim the county began manufacturing roadblocks after officials heard complaints about the retirement community being marketed to Muslims.

Russell said he will rule from the bench on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the county 2 p.m. June 22. In the meantime, he again referred the parties to mediation to attempt to reach a solution.

Stacie E. Tobin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Russell her clients have proven discrimination was a motivating factor behind delays in the project and, even if county officials and employees themselves did not hold discriminatory views, they were responding to a vocal group of objectors in the community.

“This was a very extensive campaign of opposition that was designed to put as much pressure on county officials as possible,” said Tobin, a partner at Venable LLP in Baltimore.

But Bradley Neitzel, a lawyer with the Harford County Law Department, said County Executive Barry Glassman and other officials testified they were not swayed by the public outcry or demands from state lawmakers that the project be halted.

Ground was broken on the subdivision in April 2017 and four homes were built before OT and Gemcraft began having issues getting use and occupancy permits and building permits. The plaintiffs have said the community is being marketed members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community age 55 or older.

The county claims the project was treated like any other and had permit and bond issues that must be resolved before it can continue.

Emails sent by longtime county employees to OT LLC, the owner, and Gemcraft Homes Inc., the builder, discussing these issues pre-date meetings between the developers and the county where the “Muslim issue” was raised. The emails also were sent months before town hall meetings organized by Del. Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore and Harford, where at least one witness reported hearing Islamophobic remarks from the crowd.

Tobin pointed to emails between county officials beginning last July acknowledging the questions coming from citizens about the purpose of the subdivision and rumors that a mosque was being constructed.

Other emails noted the steps being taken by the county, including an enforcement letter sent to the developers reminding them of the terms of the zoning approval for a community center which would prohibit it from being used as a mosque or open to the public. Tobin said there was no evidence either of those things was being contemplated by the plaintiffs.

“There is absolutely no reason for the county to send any letter whatsoever,” she said. “They were responding to the notion that this was a mosque.”

Director of Administration Billy Boniface told citizens at a meeting in September that no use and occupancy permits for the completed homes were being issued, which Tobin said was about “reassuring the ‘mob,’ as we call them, that the county was doing all it could to stop this project from going forward.”

David J. Shuster, another attorney for the plaintiffs, told Russell the positions the county took during discussions before and during litigation that were not codified anywhere.

Shuster, a principal at Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore, said the county changed its arguments about the validity of bonds taken out by the previous developer and took positions contrary to the fiscal interest of the county. Officials also failed to correct misinformation being circulated about the project.

But Neitzel said the burden is on the plaintiffs to show they were treated differently from other projects in the county and they cannot do so. He pointed to sections of the county code indicating permits for public works and stormwater must be issued to the property owner and the plaintiffs never took steps to get those permits issued in their name when they bought the property.

“What the plaintiffs are actually asking for is special treatment,” he said. “They’re not asking to be treated like everyone else.”

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

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