Apr 26, 2015

Why Scientology is coming to Frederick, and why there's nothing the County Council can do about it

Frederick News Post
April 26, 2015

Is Scientology a dubious “religion”; does it have questionable practices involving bullying and coercion within a cult-like atmosphere?

Is Narconon, a Scientology-affiliated drug and alcohol rehab program, widely disputed as unscientific? Is it criticized as a front to recruit vulnerable people to Scientology, with little success in credibly treating addiction?


Does any of this have any bearing on designating Trout Run, which is owned by the church, historic?


You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s Scientology on trial, if you’d watched the two hearings so far the County Council has held on whether or not Trout Run, a 40-acre rustic retreat on Catoctin Hollow Road, near Thurmont. Both meetings ended with the County Council delaying its decision. Both meetings have mired in a discussion of and testimony on Scientology’s merits, or the effectiveness of Narconon. Whether or not Trout Run is significantly historic is becoming lost in the national controversy Scientology has provoked. Even Senior County Attorney Michael Chomel took a moment to caution council members against making a decision based on the applicant’s beliefs rather than the historicity of the property.

Some council members — Councilman Jerry Donald, primarily — seem to have been looking for any excuse to deny the designation, and in doing so are paving the way to a potential lawsuit the county will easily lose.

Let’s step back a bit here to give some context. The property is owned by Social Betterment Properties International, Scientology’s real estate arm. The historic designation, if approved by the County Council, places Trout Run on the county’s register of historic places, and would allow Betterment to go ahead with renovations.

On Aug. 14, 2013, 11 members of the Frederick County Historic Preservation Commission unanimously agreed the property is historic. Trout Run meets three of the 10 categories the HPC can cite to bestow their recommendation, including being representative of master craftsmanship, exemplifying historic heritage and embodying distinctively historic architectural characteristics. On Aug. 22, 2013, the county’s board of appeals granted with a 5-0 vote a special exception allowing the property to be converted into a group home facility, a designation that requires the historic listing, according to meeting minutes.

Two unanimous votes and no objections from two commissions appointed for their expertise. The support from the HPC’s unanimous vote is particularly convincing evidence, especially if consistent with recommendations that placed the other 10 properties on the register.

What the objecting members of the County Council need to ask themselves as they ponder this decision is, would they be objecting if it weren’t the Church of Scientology making the application? Would the objections be so pointed and vociferous if this were the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, say, or the Christ-centered ministry of the Frederick Rescue Mission, or even a secular organization?

We don’t believe so.

The public backlash against Scientology is understandable and has been growing as revelations about the traditionally secretive church spread on the Internet. Then came scathing testimony from high-profile former members and, finally, adverse publicity from this year’s release of “Going Clear,” a biting and widely watched HBO documentary.

As broad as is our distaste for Scientology’s dubious practices and as concerned as we are that this tax-exempt organization will have a foothold in the county, we can’t in good conscience dispute its right to seek a historic designation for Trout Run. Neither should the County Council, who must now choose between making the right decision or making the popular decision, one that will please their constituents but land the county in court.


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