For Georgetown 'Apostles,' A Rowhouse Rebellion

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's about God, America and the bonds of friendship. Or, maybe, it's just about beer.

On one side of the battle: nine best buds at Georgetown University who hung a skull-and-crossbones flag outside their home and a porn star poster inside. On the other: their neighbors, who accuse the students of running a scam to keep their partying friends together.

They live on quiet 35th Street NW, in a stately section of Georgetown, where Brian O'Neill Jr., 20, and his roommates moved in August and promptly held pool parties so loud the university and police were called.

This is where your classic town-gown dispute gets weird. The $2.4 million house that J. Brian O'Neill Sr. bought for his son is allowed only six unrelated residents under zoning laws. But if it's a residence for a "religious community," the number jumps to 15.

The solution? The Apostles of O'Neill. That's the name the young men used Oct. 2 when they filed paperwork to incorporate as a nonprofit religious organization. In an e-mail statement, the group says that it has donated to charities and that its mission is "to be active and positive members of our community."

The neighbors call it blasphemy and a possible precedent-setting threat to property values. It has impressed some of the young men's parents, including one who called it "ingenious" and another who said they were defending American property rights in the face of fuddy-duddy Georgetowners. And it has registered little reaction from the Catholic university, which says it doesn't consider the Apostles its business.

"It's between the owners of the property and the city," university spokesman Erik M. Smulson said.

Even as e-mails have been flying for a month between city officials and residents' groups over what O'Neill's friends on his Web site tease is his "fake religion," the students may in fact have found a legitimate legal loophole that gets at a core question: What is a religion?

There is no definition of "a religious community" in city regulations, said Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which interprets and enforces the city's zoning rules. Agency officials visited the 3,600-square-foot, five-bedroom home in September and issued a warning about crowding after neighbors complained.

But because of the Apostles' filing, she said, the agency is looking at the case anew. Among the things the city can consider is the IRS definition of a religious organization: "one whose principle purpose is the study or advancement of religion."

Meanwhile, many neighbors living in the large, attached rowhouses are livid at the notion of landlords using the idea to pack homes with up to 15 high-paying students. Concerns about safety in off-campus homes increased after a 2004 fire killed a Georgetown student and news reports revealed that many houses were unsafe and had landlords without the required basic business license.

"This shameless proposal makes a mockery of the Zoning Ordinance (not to mention religion) and could have potentially devastating effect on the quality of life in our neighborhood," Georgetown architect Outerbridge Horsey wrote in an e-mail to the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

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