A disputed affordable housing development in East Towson that has for years divided neighbors over its legality received additional approval this week from a panel of appellate judges to move forward.

Developer Red Maple Place Limited, which acquired two parcels of Baltimore County land in 2018 and proposed using one of them to build a four-story, 56-unit affordable housing apartment complex, had its plans affirmed by the three-judge panel of the Appellate Court of Maryland in a decision handed down Thursday.

The judges upheld a ruling by the circuit court, which affirmed an administrative law judge’s approval of the development plan.

The site, in a historic Black neighborhood between East Joppa Road and East Pennsylvania Avenue, has been cited across Maryland as a case study into the social and economic barriers developers of affordable housing face. Conservationists, neighbors and community association members argued that the proposal would erode East Towson, where descendants of formerly enslaved people in the pre-Civil War era still reside.

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The Northeast Towson Improvement Association, which opposed the development, told The Banner in 2022 that the proposal would add an unprecedented amount of density to the Towson area. The developer had proposed constructing 50 apartments at reduced prices and six market-rate units.

Red Maple presented its plans over a five-day public hearing in 2020 and received the green light from an administrative law judge — a first step in the process to redevelop in the county.

Once Red Maple received approval in 2020, the community coalition appealed to the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, which reversed the approval. Then, Red Maple appealed to the Baltimore County Circuit Court, which reversed that ruling, reinstating the decision of the administrative law judge. This latest decision upholds that ruling.

But Red Maple has yet to progress much.

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Baltimore County Council passed a resolution in 2020 that subjected Red Maple to further scrutiny by a design review panel, an advisory group that consists of professional architects, planners and county residents. The legal case has examined whether the developer is subject to the stricter design standards imposed by that entity, which community and council members hoped would have lessened the project’s proposed height and size. Thursday’s decision affirms previous court decisions that the panel could not put restrictions on Red Maple Place.

County Councilman David Marks, a critic of the plans, told The Banner in 2022 that he disagreed with the circuit court ruling and hoped community members would appeal. In the meantime, the legal fees for developers and community members have only grown.

In a statement, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said the administration considers attainable housing a top priority but will continue to engage with residents and find ways to support the community.

The decision helps the county inch closer to its goal of creating 1,000 new affordable housing units in more prosperous census tracts by 2028. It stems from a settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016, spurred 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.

Last month, Baltimore County government leaders announced a deal with Baltimore-based developer P. David Bramble to preserve nearly 500 below-market-rate units for as long as four decades. At the time, county representatives said they had reached about half of the 1,000-unit goal, with another 11% added from the terms of that deal alone.

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Meanwhile, Olzsewski and County Council members have been sparring over proposed development in Lutherville, where developer Mark Renbaum hopes to add more than 400 units adjacent to the Maryland Light Rail stop. The administration aimed to help spur similar housing deals with developers with the introduction of legislation designed to bypass County Council approval, but Olszewski ultimately walked back the proposed mixed-use development bill with a more friendly “compromise” bill that restores development approval authority to council members.

State lawmakers are considering bills that would loosen regulations around housing development and incentivize affordable housing developments. Varying estimates pin the state’s housing shortage between 96,000 and 150,000 units, and new polling shows Marylanders want state and local lawmakers to do more to address the housing affordability challenges.

Baltimore Banner reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this report.