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Legal Fight Under Way Over Affordable Housing Project Some Say Threatens African American Community

John Lee

The clash between residents of an historically African American neighborhood in East Towson and a developer of affordable housing is coming down to a final legal battle.

Both sides squared off Wednesday before Administrative Law Judge Maureen Murphy, who will settle the dispute.

Some of the residents of East Towson are descendants of slaves who once labored at Hampton Plantation in Baltimore County. They fear the project threatens the existence of their neighborhood. 

Nancy Goldring, who has lived in East Towson for most of her life, told the judge during Wednesday’s hearing that the Red Maple Place project, a 56 unit apartment complex, is irresponsible.

“I totally do not understand the need to destroy one community to bring another one into being,” she said. 

In an interview with WYPR last fall, Goldring described Red Maple as a big brick beast that will dominate the neighborhood.

Goldring said during the hearing that her grandmother’s grandmother was a slave at Hampton, which at its height in the 19th century was a massive 25,000-acre estate stretching from Lutherville to White Marsh.  Goldring argued that East Towson’s ties to the freed slaves from Hampton who built homes there makes it a living, historic document.

Goldring said, “If we were any other people, every effort would be being made to preserve this community, to uplift this community. We would probably be an Airbnb experience by now.”

Samuel Collins, an anthropology professor at Towson University, testified that historic African American communities are being wiped out by development. There once was another one in Towson, Sandy Bottom. It was about a mile west of East Towson along Kenilworth Drive and Bosley Avenue. Collins said the residents were driven out by zoning and higher taxes.

“And now of course it’s Kenilworth Mall, and Trader Joes and apartment complexes and car dealerships,” Collins said.

Over time, Collins said East Towson has been boxed in by development.

“Bit by bit, the neighborhood’s been chiseled away,” Collins said.

Local political leaders and neighborhood associations in Towson oppose the project.

The Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, located in East Towson, supports Red Maple. Its past president, Anthony Fugett, said the county has a horrific history when it comes to affordable housing.

“If you say, ‘not in my neighborhood,’ and you use that as an argument per se, then you have to accept that argument anywhere,” Fugett said. “That’s something that as a branch we couldn’t accept, so we had to be in favor of the Red Maple development.”

In 2016, Fugett, representing the NAACP, signed on to an agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that settled a housing discrimination complaint against Baltimore County. It legally obligates the county to create 1,000 affordable housing units over 15 years. Red Maple’s 56 units would help the county whittle away at that number.

Hindley Williams is with the Image Center of Maryland, an organization that helps disabled people live independently. She testified that there are people in nursing homes who could be living on their own if they could find affordable housing in the county.

“There are a lot of people really suffering out there who would really benefit from this building,” Williams said.

Opponents say Red Maple is too big for the property and will bring with it water runoff and soil erosion.

In an interview after the hearing Dana Johnson, the president of Homes for America, a non-profit company that is developing Red Maple, said the 2.5-acre woodland property on Joppa Road is properly zoned and the project meets the county’s requirements.

Johnson said, “This project will provide high quality homes with access to some of the best schools in the county for those kids who are going to live in this building, and transit and job access.”

It will be a while longer before this is settled. One more hearing date is scheduled January 27 for Red Maple before the administrative law judge.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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