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."