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 Facebook.com 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.
Neighbors said they will take the case to court if the city grants the group religious status.
Robinson said the city is taking the Apostles seriously. "We have this under investigation," she said. "In recent memory, based on what we know, no one can remember anything like this."
J. Brian O'Neill Sr., chairman of O'Neill Properties Group in King of Prussia, Pa., bought the house for his son in August. He has told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his company's real estate holdings are worth $4 billion. The father did not return calls seeking comment, and his son and the other eight Apostles declined to answer questions.
On his Facebook site, the younger O'Neill describes himself as a politically moderate graduate of an Episcopal prep school in suburban Philadelphia who "doesn't really read much." Photos and other references to drinking and partying are plastered across the site.
Some neighbors and community representatives who have spoken with the men say that the students feel they have been good neighbors and that they are being hassled by older residents who simply don't want to live near young people. Some of their parents agree.
"This is America. If someone decides to buy a house and people who move in are not the people [the neighbors] expected, that doesn't give them the right to harass the kids," said Dennis Ianovale of Chester Springs, Pa., whose son, Christopher, lives in the house.
Asked whether he was bothered by his son being in a group accused of pretending to be a religion, Ianovale's tone became more annoyed. "Who says they aren't a religion?" he asked. "If the law says you can form a religious organization, they have that right."
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center, said, "A lot of these kids are quite spoiled. They're paying $35,000 [in tuition], and they can do whatever they damn well please. But that's a small percentage."
William Skelsey, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Georgetown who says he has 1,000 students in his district, said O'Neill told him explicitly that the Apostles were formed to deal with the zoning restrictions and keep together a group of friends who have lived together since freshman year.
"He considers himself fairly clever in having figured out how to evade the restrictions that are in place for the rest of us," he said.
Meanwhile, the students are trying to spiff up. On Oct. 16, they amended their name to Apostles of Peace and Unity. A U.S. flag has replaced the skull-and-crossbones banner, and there has been complete quiet since parents' weekend last month, when the students, some of their parents, neighborhood representatives, top city police officials and representatives of Georgetown met. With a poster of porn star Jenna Jameson as a backdrop during the meeting, everyone avoided the subject of the Apostles and stuck to polite talk about such things as proper landscaping and noise, people who attended said.
"It wouldn't have made any difference" to have tried to push the issue of the Apostles during the meeting, said Stefanie L. Bachhuber, a neighbor. "They know they're doing something wrong, but they want this house and they want nine people to be in there."
Staff writer Allison Klein and staff researchers Rena Kirsch, Magda Jean-Louis and Meg Smith contributed to this report.