A controversial proposal for affordable housing adjacent to a historically Black Towson community cleared another obstacle earlier this month, when the Baltimore County Council voted not to apply new design standards to the building.

Red Maple Place, a 56-unit development next to historic East Towson, will not be subject to new design standards that the council set for the community. The design standards will, however, apply to future buildings in the area, which freed slaves from the Hampton plantation founded in 1853.

Red Maple Place is proposed for a parcel between Joppa Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, just off Fairmount Avenue in Towson.

Initially, County Councilman Mike Ertel had proposed that the standards apply to the community without an exception for Red Maple Place. But he delayed the vote for a couple of months and, when he re-introduced the standards, he excluded the proposed development to avoid legal concerns because the county had approved it before the design standards existed.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“When you have a vested project, you can have legal concerns”, Ertel said.

Dana Johnson, president and CEO of Homes for America, the nonprofit developer responsible for Red Maple Place, had previously testified to the council that, by introducing the design standards, Ertel was attempting to quash a project that the courts had said could proceed.

In March, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Court of Maryland ruled that Red Maple Place Limited could build its affordable housing development on the parcel, which has been green space in the community for decades. The judges upheld a ruling by the circuit court, which affirmed an administrative law judge’s approval of the development plan. These legal machinations have continued since 2018, when Homes for America and its wholly owned subsidiary acquired the parcel and announced the development.

Immediately, East Towson residents and local conservationists raised concerns that the development would be too large for the area, would worsen stormwater runoff and continue eroding a historically Black community. Over the years, the community has contended with a highway that divided and shrunk its footprint, a Baltimore Gas and Electric substation, and a Black+Decker parking lot. All have eroded the area’s green space at a time when residents are trying to highlight its history through a proposed walking trail.

Johnson said in a statement that Red Maple Place meets all of the county’s zoning requirements and fits in with the other properties along that section of Joppa Road.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Now that the years of legal challenges are behind us, we look forward to bringing desperately needed, quality housing to Towson and serving residents for years to come,” Johnson said.

An independent, County Council-appointed design review panel approved Red Maple Place’s design in November 2020 after Homes for America agreed to specific adjustments requested by the panel.

“The Review Panel and Design Standards are two of many manuals covering standards or requirements that may or may not be applicable to any given development project in Baltimore County,” according to court documents related to the dispute.

Activists and neighbors who opposed Red Maple ran headlong into a county government that has been struggling to meet a demand for affordable housing and a court-ordered deadline to build more of it. Some of the same issues arose when the County Council tried to amend its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) to reduce overcrowding in some schools by further limiting new housing development in those areas. County Executive Johnny Olszewski vetoed that measure, but the council last month overrode that veto. Councilmen at the same time introduced a new version that includes a carve-out for affordable housing from the requirements. It would essentially allow for new developments when they are deemed necessary “to meet the county’s affordable housing requirements” under a 2016 voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That measure comes up for a vote on Aug. 5 and is expected to pass.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Attainable housing remains a top priority for our administration, and we believe it is absolutely essential that every family can find a safe place to call home in Baltimore County — regardless of ZIP code,” said a spokesman for the Baltimore County Executive’s Office in a written statement. “The administration is committed [to] meeting Baltimore County’s legal and moral obligations and will continue to support efforts to deliver high-quality, affordable housing options for every community.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Red Maple Place would be built adjacent to historic East Towson. It has also been updated to note that a proposed new version of Baltimore County's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which includes a carve-out for affordable housing from the requirements, will be voted on by the County Council on Aug. 5.