A Harford County state legislator and a group of Joppatowne residents are seeking judicial review of the county government’s approval of plans to build a community center in the controversial Ansar Housing Complex along the Gunpowder River in Joppatowne.
It is the latest piece of legal maneuvering in recent months over the development of Ansar, which has been marketed as a “mini-peace village” for members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Harford County and the Ansar community builder, Gemcraft Homes, of Forest Hill, are already embroiled in federal lawsuits. The writ filed this week invokes a 2004 consent decree that ended prior litigation over the development.
Republican Del. Rick Impallaria, one of eight plaintiffs in the most recent case, filed a writ of mandamus in Harford County Circuit Court on Nov. 29. The writ was filed against County Attorney Melissa Lambert and Joseph Siemek, director of public works, according to a copy Impallaria provided during a press conference the day after the filing.
“The purpose of the document is to compel a government agency or a person of government to do the job that they’re required to do by law,” Impallaria said while standing in front of the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air.
The other plaintiffs are Gina and Jorge Pimentel, who own an Abingdon real estate firm and have been outspoken opponents of the project; Matilda Deaver, Roger Whitt and Renee Brooks, who live along Trails Way where the Ansar development is being built, and Richard and Tammy Baczynskj, Joppatowne residents who live near the development.
Jorge Pimentel, who attended the press conference, accused proponents of the project of working with the county in secrecy and suggested Ansar would not happen in other parts of Harford County.
“This would not happen in Bel Air or Fallston,” he said. “The dumping on Joppatowne has to stop.”
He and other opponents have expressed frustration about a lack of information from the county about a project they see as discrimination against non-Muslims.
“Our government needs to be transparent and let us know what’s going on,” Pimentel said.
The press conference drew other people who are not plaintiffs but who said they are opposed to building houses and selling them to Muslims only.
“We as Realtors are not allowed to do that,” Realtor Christine Heisey, of Fallston, said. “If somebody wants to see a home, we should be able to show it to anybody regardless of what their background is.”
The plaintiffs want the courts to determine if the county’s approval of a plan to combine four of 52 residential lots along Trails Way, creating one lot on which a community center would be built, violates the 2004 consent decree that limited development in the ecologically-sensitive area.
“We’ve been asking many questions about this so-called Muslim village and we haven’t been getting many answers out of the county,” Impallaria said.
He said the writ was filed after he and his supporters could not get the information they sought from the county government, about whether or not the community center is a violation of the consent decree.
The consent decree, which ended decades of litigation over the development along Trails Way, took effect March 10, 2004, according to the writ. Circuit Court Judge Stephen M. Waldron, who is now retired, presided over the consent decree which brought together parties such as the Harford County government, the people’s counsel and the state’s Critical Area Commission.
Developers who want to build in areas close to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries — such as the Gunpowder River — must abide by strict regulations to protect the waterways.
In the case of the Trails Way development, the consent decree limits homebuilding to 56 established lots, and the dwellings must be for senior citizens 55 or older, as stated in the writ.
The Ansar community has been marketed as a place where older Ahmadiyya Muslims can retire.
Houses were built on four of the 56 lots in 2006, but the development has languished for the past decade. Those who live in the existing houses, such as the plaintiffs in the writ of mandamus, have expressed concerns about how they would be integrated into a majority-Muslim subdivision.
Representatives of Ahmadiyya community, facing intense community backlash, have stressed the houses also will be available for purchase by non-Muslims. They have also said any resident of the subdivision can use the community center.
The center will be open for Muslim prayer services, among other community activities, advocates for the development have said. Online advertisements for Ansar touted a mosque as part of the community, but Lambert sent a letter to developers in July indicating houses of worship are not permitted in the area.
Impallaria said the purpose of the writ is not to determine whether Ansar can be built or not, but “has the county violated the law and should the county be forced to rescind the permits and make it go through the proper channels through the proper public notices and back before the court before any kind of community center would be approved?”