'Apostles' Ordered to Abide by Zoning Laws

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006; Page B04

As much of Washington started to shut down for the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday afternoon, Brian O'Neill Jr., a Georgetown University undergrad and founder of the Apostles of Peace and Unity, sat outside the office of the city zoning administrator, angry.

His sentences were short, his tone frustrated. His faith, the college junior said, was being challenged, and he didn't like it.

"I don't know what we're going to do right now," he said.

The day before, at 6:24 p.m., O'Neill had been served an official order "to cease and desist from the illegal use of premises" -- the premises being 1617 35th Street NW, a stately house in Georgetown in an elegant neighborhood where zoning rules allow only six unrelated people to live together.

O'Neill and eight friends moved into the house in August, filing to incorporate as a nonprofit religious organization exempt from the six-person limit.

Some of the Apostles' parents thought that the filing was "ingenious," but many neighbors and others in Georgetown were outraged at what they considered a combination of blasphemy and disregard for the intent of the city's law.

On Tuesday, D.C. Zoning Administrator Bill Crews weighed in: The group, he wrote, fits the definition of a fraternity house, which in Georgetown requires a zoning variance and additional designated parking spots.

If the Apostles don't reduce the number of residents to six within 10 days of when they were notified, Crews said, they could wind up in court or be fined until they comply. The group can also seek a variance and appeal, according to the letter that O'Neill held as he waited yesterday, hoping to see Crews.

"We don't agree with the order, and we don't agree that we are a fraternity. We are in no way [a fraternity], there is no documentation that says that," he said. "That's not what we are."

O'Neill didn't return messages last night, and it wasn't clear whether he got to see zoning officials. However, the question of whether the nine students legally constitute a religious organization seemed at least partially unanswered. Crews's order did not directly address the group's claim, and he said that he used several sources of information to determine the house's purpose.

"I looked at additional information. . . and it appeared to me that, by their own statements, they were a bunch of guys who wanted to live together," he said, which led him to the dictionary definition of fraternity: "a group associated for a common purpose, interest or pleasure," he said.

"I don't buy their claim," he said.

Crews's hesitancy to define "religion" is typical of local and federal officials, who have been reluctant to define the word, say some experts on church-state relations.

Last night, neighbors of the $2.4 million house that O'Neill's father bought were more relieved that the city had ruled against the Apostles than interested in theological nuances. They said that police were called to the house as recently as Nov. 11 for noise complaints, and the students were fined $300. O'Neill paid the fine a few days later.

"[O'Neill] seems like a very nice kid, congenial," said Andy Solberg, commander of the 2nd District. "He seems like he wants to do the right thing in the community, but he's not doing it."

Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.

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