Frederick County Council members say the vote they are scheduled to make Tuesday isn’t about whether to allow the Church of Scientology, or its teachings, to come to Frederick County.
The vote is about whether the 40-acre Trout Run campus in the forest of the Catoctin Mountains, with its rustic lodges and cottages, is so historically significant that it should be listed on the Frederick County Register of Historic Places.
If the council votes to add the property to the register, Narconon will be able to move forward with its plan to open a substance abuse treatment center on the site, off Catoctin Hollow Road near Thurmont. This would upset many members of the community who have been clear that they do not want that to happen, given Narconon’s connection to Scientology.
But the council members say that’s not what this is about.
The council is set to vote on the topic at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, but which way the decision will go, or whether the council will actually vote, is up in the air.
Council President Bud Otis said last week it is his hope that the council will make a decision Tuesday. Still, he said at the time that he had a few more questions for county staff.
Considering the record
The council vote is key because Narconon will not be able to operate on the site if it is not listed on the historic register.
The property is zoned in a way that does not allow certain uses. But the county’s board of appeals decided in October 2013 that Narconon could operate on the site under a special exception for a “group home” as long as the property is on the historic register.
After holding two meetings on the topic, the Historic Preservation Commission recommended to the council that the site be listed on the register.
The council has held two public meetings on the topic so far, and decided to postpone the vote and close the record at its last meeting, April 21. The council received new information from the applicant that day, so a few members of the council said they wanted more time to review the documents.
M.C. Keegan-Ayer, the council vice president, said she also wanted time to look back at the historic commission’s meetings on the topic.
Keegan-Ayer said Thursday she got the information she was seeking about the commission meetings Thursday, and she was planning to look at it that night.
Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater said last week she planned to meet with Keegan-Ayer to review the information, as she had some questions about the commission meetings as well.
Otis said that he has spent the last month considering the history of the site and its effect on the county.
Councilman Kirby Delauter is the only elected official who declared his stance on the topic in April. He said at the last meeting on the topic that it is pretty clear that the property should be designated historic.
The rest of the council declined to comment about their opinions at this time.
The county gave The Frederick News-Post all testimony the council received on the topic between April 7, the first public hearing, and April 21. It includes the following:
- Information the applicant gave to the council April 21, including a response to a resident’s comments about the applicant’s plans for the site, and a document detailing the state of deterioration of each building on the property.
- A letter from a Narconon representative meant to correct the public record on false statements. The letter explained the history of Narconon, why Narconon chose Frederick County, the transparency involved in the process of coming here, the company’s plans for the property and the legitimacy of its program.
- A letter from the client’s historical expert explaining the historical significance of the property.
- More than 25 emails, and a few phone calls, from community members and others from across the nation, to the council. Most of them stated they were against either Narconon or the historic designation, but some were in support of the plan.
Scope of the vote
Kai Hagen, a former county commissioner who opposes granting the historical designation, believes the council should be able to consider more than whether the property is historic when voting.
At the last meeting, Michael Chomel, a county attorney, advised the council to make its decision considering only whether the historic commission was correct in recommending the property for the list. If the commission was correct, he said, the council should approve the property for the list.
Chomel read the county ordinance on the topic, which states that the county’s elected officials “may designate boundaries” for a property if it is historic in specific ways defined in the ordinance.
“So it’s really a limited role of yours in the process,” he stated.
Hagen points out the word “may” in the ordinance, stating that word allows leeway, compared with the word “shall.”
“Nothing in the law dictates what the County Council is able to consider, or what is a reasonable basis for making their decision,” he said.
Council members Jerry Donald, Fitzwater, Keegan-Ayer, Otis and Billy Shreve said last week they will consider only whether the site is historic when making their vote.
“Trying to bring too many issues into it is just muddying the waters,” Fitzwater said.
Shreve said he has been ready to vote on this since April.
“This really simple decision has been clouded by a lot of outside influences, and it has made a mockery of the council,” Shreve said.
If the council votes to place Trout Run on the historic register, it will still be months before Narconon can operate on the site.
The applicant will work on county and state approvals concurrently, said Bruce Dean, the attorney representing Narconon. The county still has to approve the site plan, and then the property owner has to go through Historic Preservation Commission approvals of all exterior renovations it has planned.
The earliest date the historic commission could review proposed renovations would be in early July, said Denis Superczynski, a county planner.
Also, the applicant is still working out issues with the septic system on the site with the state, Dean said.
The estimated timeline for renovations is about four to six months, given ideal weather once permits are pulled, said Yvonne Rodgers, Narconon’s East U.S. executive director.
“We have done some emergency repairs and look forward to getting the construction started before the elements further deteriorate these beautiful historic structures,” she wrote in an email.
Narconon’s team of professionals is researching the licensing criteria to operate in the state and is working with Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on exactly what will be needed for the treatment that Narconon will provide, Rodgers said.
If Narconon is considered by the state as a drug and alcohol treatment program, it will need to get a license from the state. The state defines the treatment programs to include outpatient programs, residential programs, corrections programs and DUI/DWI education programs, according to Christopher Garrett, communications director for the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
If Narconon is considered recovery housing, there are no regulations that address that term, Garrett said.
Narconon has asked for the state’s requirements for licensing, but has not formally submitted an application, Garrett said. It takes the Office of Health Care Quality up to eight months to review the initial application for drug and alcohol treatment programs, he said. This includes reviewing policies and procedures, the program service plan, fire marshal inspections and other documents, and then inspecting the location, Garrett said.
The plan is to have the licensing steps and renovations occur concurrently, Rodgers said.
“It is Narconon’s goal to open within four to six months on the site,” she wrote.