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Judge orders Harford County to issue some permits for controversial subdivision

Bill Luther on the deck of one of his unfinished houses. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary

Bill Luther, CEO of Gemcraft Homes Inc. (File photo)

A federal judge ordered Harford County on Friday to issue permits for 14 completed homes in a Joppatowne subdivision being marketed as a retirement community for Muslims, finding the county’s refusal to do so was motivated in part by the “active and vile racist animus” expressed by some county residents.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III partially granted the developers’ request for a preliminary injunction, finding they had met their burden as to the 14 already-built homes with buyers waiting to move in. Five completed homes only need use and occupancy permits while the other nine also need water and sewer hookups.

Russell declined to order the county to issue building permits for the remaining vacant lots, finding the monetary losses were not so significant for those properties.

“We’re very pleased,” said William Luther, CEO of Gemcraft Homes Inc., which is building the development. “It’s nice that the 14 folks that are locked out of their homes are going to get moved in.”

Stacie E. Tobin, a partner at Venable LLP in Baltimore and attorney for the plaintiffs, said they do not plan to appeal the partial denial but will proceed to trial.

Russell, who read his opinion from the bench, said he was not finding the county defendants acted out of any personal prejudice but that officials placed heightened scrutiny on the development because of public pressure from a segment of the community.

The county benefits by allowing 14 people to move into their homes and begin paying taxes, Russell said.

“In many respects, it’s a win-win for both parties,” he said. “It’s not in the county’s best interest for the developed property to lay abandoned.”

The plaintiffs will have to file a $1,000 performance bond per property, which neither party objected to, before the permitting process can resume. Luther said people can be moved into the homes within the next two months.

Bradley Neitzel, a lawyer with the Harford County Law Department, declined to comment after the ruling.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs contended the county began manufacturing roadblocks after officials heard complaints about the community being “Muslim-only” and including a mosque on site. The county argued at a multiday hearing earlier this month officials were not swayed by public outcry but merely enforced its code and practices.

Russell said there was evidence that community members, who called county offices to protest the project, used Islamophobic rhetoric and led to the county treating the project differently.

The defendants said the project had permit and bond issues once OT LLC, the owner, and Gemcraft purchased the partially completed land.

Officials told the plaintiffs they needed to take out new performance bonds for infrastructure work and obtain approval for new water and sewer plans and a stormwater management plan. Luther testified that he had never faced these requirements in his past projects.

Russell ruled the practices described by county employees were not in the code or otherwise memorialized and the original plans and permits remained valid.

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

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