Wednesday, October 25, 2017
JOPPATOWNE, Md. — Dueling legal complaints and allegations of Islamophobia have marred an unfinished retirement community in Maryland after homes were sold only to Muslims.
Planners say interest in the River Run development was strong before stalled county permits halted construction. Some elected officials and residents complained that the community violated fair-housing laws.
Stuck in the middle are Muslims who put down deposits to live in the quiet neighborhood overlooking the Gunpowder River — and non-Muslims who already live there.
The River Run development is slated for about 35 wooded acres in Joppatowne, Md., a community of about 12,000 people 20 miles northeast of Baltimore. More than 56 homes were approved for the lot more than a decade ago, but the project fell into disrepair after just four homes were built when a previous developer folded.
Then, last year, 46-year-old Faheem Younus, an infectious-disease doctor and an immigrant from Pakistan, teamed up with a different developer to build a retirement community for older Ahmadiyya Muslims, adherents of a branch of Islam who preach tolerance and face repression from other Muslims around the world.
"There are many Jewish, Christian communities — we're not reinventing the wheel here," Younus said.
After a nationwide search, Younus settled on River Run. With a planned mosque and views of the river, the development offered what was advertised as a "peace village" for people 55 and older.
"This will be a community of 49 spacious brand new homes (Villas) for Ahmadi Muslims with a dedicated mosque within walking distance," read a website this year advertising the community. That language was later removed, replaced with an update that touted an "audio feed from the adjacent mosque" for the daily call to prayer — before that language also was removed.
The plan to market to Muslims proved successful, Younus said, and 22 units were sold within months after a lottery was held among Ahmadis who wished to buy them.
Some elected officials and residents, however, complained, saying the planned community violated fair-housing laws. Others questioned whether their town should open its arms to a neighborhood initially designed for Muslims.
Real estate agent Gina Pimentel filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month, claiming she couldn't get information about the River Run units because Younus was "unlawfully privately marketing and selling only to Ahmadi Muslims."
In an interview, Pimentel said she is not worried about Muslims living in the community, but about her business. She can't earn a commission if she can't sell homes, she said, and she was also concerned that lenders charging market interest rates might be cut out by Islamic rules against usury.
"It's not about religion for me," she said. "My husband's Puerto Rican . . . do you want to live with 106 Puerto Ricans?"
Elected officials entered the debate, including Maryland Del. Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County), who held two meetings about the community last month. Impallaria said the controversy is not about faith, but fairness.
"The leading problem on this project is the housing discrimination," he said. "We really don't need a group of people coming in that's going to isolate themselves from the rest of the community — come in and do an end run around state, federal, county laws. It's not a good way to start out as a good neighbor.
At several town hall meetings, Younus and two fellow Ahmadis responded as about 25 residents asked about mortgages, diversity and Islam.
The meeting occasionally grew heated. One man wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt challenged Younus about the definition of "jihad."
"Jihad is a war on the infidel, and I am the infidel," he said. (The man declined to give his name to The Washington Post, calling it the "lying press.")
Younus said there were many misconceptions about the Joppatowne retirement community. River Run is open to everyone, he said, and was initially marketed only to Ahmadis because demand was high, which meant further advertising was unnecessary. Its planned mosque would now be a community center, he said.
Yes, Ahmadi Muslims can have mortgages, he said. No, he said, the word "jihad" doesn't necessarily mean "armed struggle."
Younus acknowledged "mistakes along the way" in marketing River Run.
"We have to go out and tell you who we are," he said. "We are not trying to be unlikable. We are trying to be transparent."
During a public meeting at a firehouse, Younus was joined by Mansoor Shams, an Ahmadi Muslim from Baltimore. He said he's patient with questioners but bristles when people insist the Koran is a violent text.
"It's such a disrespect to me and my [Marine] uniform," Shams said. "If you ask a question, at least take my word for it."
Reactions among the crowd at the community meeting were mixed.
"I have some trepidations, I admit it," said David Miceli, 71, wearing a blue "Las Vegas" hat to honor the victims of the mass shooting there. "But the man looked me in the eye and said 'I'm telling you the truth.' I have to give him the benefit of the doubt."
But Pat McLaughlin, 81, worried Younus was "pushing an agenda."
"He never answered my question," she said. "Why did they sell them in secret?"
That question is part of a lawsuit that Gemcraft Homes chief executive Bill Luther, the developer who worked with Younus, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Maryland against Harford County officials. It alleges the county stopped issuing building permits for River Run, halting construction and complicating the sale of existing homes purchased by Muslims.
The suit alleges the county's delay is "motivated by racial and religious animus to keep members of the Islamic faith from purchasing lots and exercising their religious freedoms."
Harford County officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, but told the Baltimore Sun last month that the project is being treated like any other and permits are on hold until issues such as storm water management are resolved. Impallaria, a defendant in the suit, likened Younus's outreach to a bank robber who claims he is just "an inexperienced person who filled out a withdrawal slip wrong."
"They had a conspiracy," Impallaria said. "They already carried it out by selling homes to a select religious sect. I'm not buying their story now."
Luther, who lives in Harford County, disagreed. Walking through River Run — much of it still a construction site strewn with earth-moving equipment, stacks of plywood and piles of I-beams — Luther said he is more like a grocer with a "a case of Cokes" who sells them to the first people in line, no matter who they are.
The county's delays put the future of the project in doubt, Luther said. He has $5 million tied up in River Run, subcontractors who can't work and people who bought homes they can't move into.
"I've never seen such discrimination," he said. "It's sickening. I don't know what the heck they are doing."
Ajaz Khan, a 63-year-old systems analyst from North Liberty, Iowa, said he fled Pakistan in 1974 after Sunni Muslims burned his family's home and killed two of his cousins in front of him. After landing in Europe as a refugee, he ended up in England, where he met his wife, Jamila, before moving to the United States in 1991. They had five boys, three of whom work for Apple and one who served as a Marine.
In February, the Khans put a $10,000 deposit on a River Run property. Although it will mean relocating about 1,000 miles, the move made sense for them. Other families they knew were buying there. Ajaz could commute to his company's office in Trenton, N.J., when necessary. And the couple love boating and camping — northern Maryland specialties.
"This is a dream come true," said Jamila Khan. "It looks like it's going to be a beautiful place to settle."
The Khans had planned to move their belongings in November. Now, they're not sure what to do.
If fair-housing complaints and a federal lawsuit weren't enough to rile Joppatowne, there's a further complication: Some people already live in River Run.
Tony Whitt bought his house, one of four completed homes next to the undeveloped lots, in 2016, before Younus teamed up with Luther. Little more than a year later, Whitt was concerned that he would be living in what looked to be an all-Muslim community.
"I have no opposition to the group," Whitt said. "But it's not promoting diversity. It promotes segregation."
Like Whitt, Ashley Barnes and her sister own a completed home near the houses purchased by Ahmadis, having inherited it when their mother died in August. The sisters are not Muslim — but they want to sell the property to any buyer, Muslim or not, and the legal quagmire may complicate their efforts.
"I know nothing sinks property values like abandoned homes," Barnes said. "All values suffer with half-built houses."
It's not clear how HUD and the courts will handle the dueling complaints.
Tim Iglesias, a professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in fair-housing law, said the Ahmadis could be accused of discrimination by "steering" the homes toward Muslims — but Harford County could also face that charge for "treating the development differently . . . because they think that Muslims are going to be living there."
"This is so complicated it would be perfect for a law school exam," he said.
Younus will host additional meetings at the firehouse to try to convince the mostly white residents nearby that River Run is not a threat — and that anyone in the community can move there if they wish. Twenty-seven properties, he pointed out, remain on the market.
"This is not an exclusive community," he said. "The only way you can prove me wrong is to buy a house there."
Monday, October 23, 2017
Gov. Larry Hogan called a federal appeals court ruling that a cross-shaped war memorial in Prince George’s County unconstitutional "outrageous" and an "overreach," and vowed that his administration would fight it.
In a social media post, the Republican governor wrote Friday that he has passed by the memorial in Bladensburg known as the Peace Cross thousands of times. He said the 40-foot Latin cross is an "incredible tribute" to veterans.
A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found Wednesday that the World War I Veterans Memorial “aggrandizes the Latin cross” to the point that an observer would conclude that the government entity that owns and maintains it is endorsing Christianity.
Hogan, who was raised in Prince George’s County, identified himself in his post as “a native Prince Georgian.”
“The idea that memorializing our soldiers killed in battle on foreign lands to make the world safe for democracy is somehow unconstitutional goes against everything we stand for as Americans,” he wrote. “Enough is enough.”
It is not clear what role Hogan's administration would have in the litigation. The cross is owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The commission was was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1927, but its board is appointed by Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Asked whether the governor is seeking an appeal in the case, a Hogan spokeswoman said only that "all options, legal or otherwise, are being considered.”
The decision by the 4th Circuit Court in Richmond, Va., reversed a 2015 District Court ruling. Attorneys defending the cross offered inconsistent information this week about whether they would appeal it.
An attorney for the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, which is representing the American Legion in the case, told The Washington Post that it would appeal to the Supreme Court.
Another attorney for the same group told The Baltimore Sun that lawyers were considering their options. If it decided to challenge the ruling, the group could appeal for an en banc review from the 4th Circuit rather than seeking a hearing in the Supreme Court.
Hogan’s reaction raises the political stakes of the litigation, and could weigh into any decision to appeal. Hogan is up for re-election next year.
Erected in 1925, the cross honors 49 men from Prince George’s County who died in World War I. The structure stands at the intersection of Route 450 and Alternate U.S. 1 on a rectangular base inscribed with the words “valor,” “endurance,” “courage” and “devotion.”
The initial lawsuit challenging the cross was filed by the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that advocates for the separation of church and state. The group noted that the cross sits on public land, and the commission had spent $117,000 to maintain and repair it.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted “half-baked, spurious nationalism” in the United States in an emotional speech Monday night after receiving the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal.Sorry Senator McCain. The United States wasn't created so that US Senators could create "injustice" at home in order to attempt "justice" in the rest of the world. We'll settle for "justice" within the United States of America. Better a half-baked loaf of "justice" than none.
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history,” McCain said in the speech.
The Arizona senator said “we live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil” and said Americans “are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.”
“We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did,” McCain said.
“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.”
McCain’s remarks came after he was presented the prestigious medal by former Vice President Joe Biden. The Arizona Republican received the award for his “lifetime of sacrifice and service” to the United States.
Past recipients of the Liberty Medal include the Dalai Lama, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in July, served in the Navy for more than two decades and spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The former Republican presidential nominee made headlines earlier this year after casting a dramatic vote against a GOP bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare, killing the legislation.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Thursday, October 5, 2017
About 31 percent of Maryland households would pay a higher tax bill and roughly two-thirds would receive a tax cut under a proposal announced by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress, according to an analysis released Wednesday.
The study, by the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, found 30.5 percent of Marylanders would face an immediate increase — the largest share in the nation — due mostly to the proposal to eliminate the frequently claimed state and local tax deduction.
Nearly 60 percent of Marylanders earning between $73,700 and $126,500 would receive an average tax cut of $1,280, according to the report. Another 41 percent in that income range would receive an average tax increase of $2,200.
Virtually all state residents earning above $657,800 would receive a large cut in taxes.
“What I see here is that this tax plan is incredibly skewed toward the ultrarich,” said Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy. “Most middle class and upper middle class Marylanders would see their taxes go up.”
It’s still a bit early to take any such analysis to the bank, however, because key details are missing from the GOP proposal. It’s not clear what income ranges will be used to define the plan’s proposed three tax brackets. It is also not clear which exemptions will be jettisoned.
Republicans have released only a nine-page memo, not bill text.
While many of the provisions most likely to affect middle class families remain murky, policies affecting the wealthy have been clearer — giving opponents an easy target. The proposal would eliminate the alternative minimum tax, a mechanism created to ensure rich families don’t skirt liability. It would also lower the top-rate for “pass-through” income earned by businesses and claimed on individual returns.
For Maryland, a state with one of the nation’s highest median incomes, the proposed elimination of the state and local tax deduction is among the most discernible impacts now. Forty-five percent of Maryland filers took that deduction in 2014, the highest percentage of filers in the country.
Most of the states that would be most affected by ending the deduction — New York, California, Maryland — tend to vote for Democratic candidates in national elections.