A circuit court judge in Baltimore County has given the green light to a controversial project in East Towson, overruling a 2021 vote by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals blocking the affordable housing development.

Judge Andrew M. Battista on Tuesday affirmed the earlier decision of a county administrative law judge approving plans for a 56-unit building along East Joppa Road east of Fairmount Avenue. The county’s appeals board had sided with opponents of the project.

The proposed Red Maple Place development has riled local conservationists and East Towson residents since it was proposed in 2019. They say it is too large for its planned site, would worsen stormwater runoff and further erode a historically Black community that has already been chipped away by private development and public infrastructure. Environmentalists objected to the development’s location on one of the few remaining swaths of undeveloped land in Towson.

But the project’s construction is critical to the county, which is behind on its obligation to develop 1,000 affordable housing units in more prosperous census tracts over 12 years. That goal was formalized by a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that settled a lawsuit brought by housing advocates and tenants, who alleged that the county had discriminated against Black families and people with disabilities by concentrating development in majority-Black areas rather than spreading it evenly across the county.

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As proposed by the Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America, Red Maple Place would consist of 50 affordably priced apartments and six market-rate units.

Residents and advocates opposed to the development appealed the administrative law judge’s approval of the project, arguing that the development did not fit the character of the area.

“This 56-unit building is going to go on an acre-and-a-half of land,” said Nancy Goldring, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association. “There’s not development with that level of density in the Towson area.”

Opponents have also argued that the proposed development would continue a pattern in the county of concentrating affordable housing in predominately Black areas. The development would encroach on Historic East Towson, one of the county’s oldest Black communities, they say.

Tony Fugett, former president of the Baltimore County NAACP, said he believes the development would not negatively affect Historic East Towson.

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“I’m seeing it as a Towson development and I don’t see where it actually takes anything from East Towson,” said Fugett.

“If you ask people, are they for affordable housing, they’re going to say yes, and almost to a person they’re going to say ‘but not in my neighborhood’ and that’s when you get into a problem,” he added.

Supporters of the development also argue that it could bring benefits to the Historic East Towson community.

“I think you’ve got a community that deserves all of the investment it can get and I think this particular development has been cast as a negative,” said Terry Hickey, director of housing and community development for Baltimore County. “I would like the opportunity to have a fresh conversation about how that can actually be an asset when combined with other investment in that area.”

At issue in the circuit court judge’s decision this week was whether the development site falls within the East Towson Design Review Area, a designation that would have subjected it to stricter design standards.

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The Baltimore County Council in 2020 passed a resolution creating new boundaries for the Design Review Area. Councilmember David Marks, who opposes the Red Maple Place development, told The Baltimore Banner Friday that that measure was designed to include the development within the review area’s boundaries, subjecting it to a design panel review board that he and other opponents hoped would take issue with the project’s height and impact on the surrounding community.

But the judge ruled that the resolution does not, as the appeal board claimed, include the necessary “stated intention” required to make the development subject to the design standards.

Marks said he disagreed strongly with that decision.

“Judges aren’t clairvoyant and I don’t know how this judge could presume to know what I was thinking,” said Marks. “My intent was clearly for that area to have stricter design standards.”

Marks said he hoped community members would appeal the decision. Goldring said that she and other residents were exploring legal options with their attorney.

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