Jan 15, 2016

Trout Run designation case will go back to County Council for explanation of vote

Danielle E. Gaines
Frederick News Post
January 14, 2016

The case over the historic designation of Trout Run — a Catoctin Mountain parcel where the Church of Scientology wants to open a Narconon drug treatment center — will head back to the Frederick County Council.

A Frederick County Circuit Court judge ruled this week that the council did not properly outline the basis for its decision when it voted against historic designation of the 40-acre camp south of Thurmont.

Social Betterment Properties International, the Church of Scientology’s real estate arm, bought the land in September 2013 with the hope of opening a group home for drug and alcohol abuse treatment, using the Narconon framework.

The property is zoned for resource conservation use, which would prohibit the land’s use as a group home. However, if the county included the property on its Register of Historic Places, Trout Run would qualify for a special exception and Social Betterment could open the center.

In June, the council voted against that historic designation, which had been recommended by the county’s Historic Preservation Commission in two separate votes.

Social Betterment filed a lawsuit disputing the decision, saying the evidence introduced in public hearings supported historic designation and the council’s decision showed religious animus.

Circuit Judge William R. Nicklas Jr. heard arguments in the case this month. His opinion was filed Wednesday.

Nicklas concluded, in agreement with attorneys for Social Betterment, that the council was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity when it voted and thus was required to issue a final decision including findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Because no final decision was issued in that form, Nicklas said, the court could not properly perform its function of reviewing the council’s denial. Nicklas said he also could not evaluate the claims of religious discrimination without specific factual findings of the council.

Attorneys for Frederick County had argued that the decision was a legislative action, which does not require written or spoken findings of fact before a vote.

Nicklas ordered that the case be returned to the County Council, which will have to issue those findings of fact, as required by state law.

Attorney Jennifer Kneeland, who represented Social Betterment in court, said she believes there is no evidence in the council’s record to support its no vote that specifically addresses her client’s application for historic designation.

Kneeland said much of the public testimony and even council members’ comments that they did not believe the camp was rare do not directly address Social Betterment’s application for historic designation based on three things: that the property exemplifies the cultural, economic, social, political or historic heritage of the county; that the property embodies distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of architecture; or that the property represents the work of a master craftsman, architect or builder.

Some of the issues were addressed in public comments, however, and Social Betterment did not identify any master craftsman who constructed the camp in its application.

While Kneeland said she hopes the judge’s opinion will spur a revote on the designation that would support the Historic Preservation Commission’s decisions, she thinks the council is entrenched in its opinions.

If the council continues to support its vote against designation, the case could go back to Frederick County Circuit Court. There, a judge could decide if the council’s vote was based on the evidence at public hearings or if its decision could be invalidated because the findings were arbitrary and illegal.

County Attorney John Mathias said the county’s legal staff will meet with the council to decide how to move forward after the judge’s opinion.

The county could also file a request for Nicklas to reconsider his decision. It is unclear whether Nicklas’ decision could be appealed to a higher court before the case is reconsidered by the council.

Council President Bud Otis’ office referred questions about the case to the county attorney’s office.

Social Betterment issued a statement after the judge’s opinion: “We are pleased that the Circuit Court for Frederick County has returned our historic designation case back to the Frederick County Council and ordered them to disclose the exact reasons they used to deny historic status to the property at Trout Run. The County Council has been ordered to provide a factual and legal justification for their decision, something they have been unwilling to do so far.”


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