The Frederick County Council voted overwhelmingly Tuesday against a historical designation for Trout Run, dealing a stunning setback to a Scientology-backed drug treatment program that wants to open at the rural retreat near Camp David.
Narconon, which relies on saunas and the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to treat drug addicts, needed the designation because the 40-acre property’s zoning does not allow such a use. A listing on the county historical register would have enabled it for that use.
But the council voted 6 to 1 against the designation, with at least one member who had previously indicated some support for the project apparently changing sides. A large group of activists opposed to Narconon broke out into applause.
It is not clear what Narconon will do next. Council member Billy Shreve, the only one to vote in favor of the designation, had said he was concerned Narconon would sue the council if the vote was no.
Bruce Dean, an attorney for the project, said the property owners could either appeal or wait a year and file a new application. “We remain convinced that it is historic and meets the criteria,” Dean said.
Nearby, opponents were hugging and discussing where they’d celebrate the win. “It’s almost too good to be true,” said Kimberly Mellon, one of the leaders of a group called No Narconon at Trout Run. “I’m so excited.”
The vote had become one of the most contentious debates in the semi-rural county in years, attracting national media attention because of the Scientology connections. By law, though, the council was supposed to consider only the historical designation, not the church or Narconon’s controversial approach to drug treatment.
After a Scientology-connected real estate company purchased Trout Run for $4.85 million in 2013, Narconon waged an expensive campaign to convince officials that the property, which served as a stand-in for the real Camp David on TV’s “The West Wing,” was historical. A consultant hired to research the property’s history wrote a lengthy report about the site’s stone cabins and connection to past presidents, including Herbert Hoover, who once “reeled in a fine one-and-one-half pound trout.”
The county’s Historic Preservation Commission ruled that it was eligible for historical designation, citing its distinctive, rustic architecture from the 1920s; cultural and historical connections to the area; and the local masons and other master craftsmen who built its cabins. Narconon just needed the council to sign off.
But opponents argued that the site was not historical and that Narconon was distorting history as a backdoor way of getting into the county.
The vote was delayed twice after council members were flooded with feedback from residents. Some council members appeared to grow more skeptical as the process dragged on. At an earlier hearing, council member Jerry Donald asked, “What’s so historic about a place where a guy fishes?”
The vote delays allowed opposition to build. The group No Narconon at Trout Run, which formed on Facebook and grew to more than 300 members, spent considerable time researching the site’s history and the historic designation process, and it also tried to sway the council with objections to Narconon and Scientology.
A former Narconon patient and employee in Canada traveled to Frederick to give two talks about his experiences in the program. The group also encouraged people to watch “Going Clear,” an HBO documentary about Scientology.
Mark Long, a Thurmont home inspector and one of the group’s leaders, said No Narconon members wanted the council to “vote no and say nothing else.”
Meanwhile, Scientology dispatched top officials to meet with Frederick News-Post reporters, stressing that the program was secular but “supported” by the church.
Yvonne Rodgers, Narconon’s East Coast executive director, said that only a “very small minority” had tried to make a religious issue and that Trout Run is “exactly the type of location that you would want to send a loved one in order to help them recover from drug addiction.”
Shreve said Tuesday before the vote that he thought the Narconon concerns had clouded the process, but several of the members who wound up voting no said they had not been convinced that the property was historical.
“I am simply not convinced of its historical significance,” said Council Vice President M.C. Keegan-Ayer.
Council member Kirby Delauter, who represents the district that includes Trout Run, had previously indicated support for the project. But before the vote, he said he had concerns. If any residents in his district were persuaded about the site’s historic significance, “they sure haven’t contacted me.”
Narconon officials said in a statement that “we will continue to explore all options available to open a rehabilitation facility at Trout Run to help in the fight to stem the area’s horrendous drug abuse problem.”
Bogage is a freelance writer.