Buildings are seen through the trees at Trout Run in Thurmont, Md. A group connected to Scientology called Narconon is trying to open a drug rehabilitation facility at Trout Run, an old resort where presidents used to lounge and fish near Camp David. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When the producers of “The West Wing” needed a Camp David look-alike, they sent President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet to Trout Run, a peaceful array of stone lodges set along a stream near the real Camp David.

Now Narconon, a controversial drug rehab program affiliated with the Church of Scientology, wants to use the Frederick County property to help treat Maryland’s surge of heroin addicts and other drug abusers with saunas, vitamins and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. A Narconon official defended the program as a fresh start for “tens of thousands” of addicts in the United States and abroad, but the organization has also been sued for alleged fraud and wrongful death.

In a county where political discourse can get a little weird — a council member recently declared that a reporter had no right to print his name in the local newspaper — the debate over Narconon is slipping into the surreal.

Because of zoning restrictions, the only way Narconon can operate Trout Run as a rehab facility is to get it listed on the county historical register. The property’s current zoning designation, resource conservation, doesn’t permit a group home or medical use, while the historical designation does. So Narconon hired a consultant to write a history of the 40-acre site, noting that President Herbert Hoover visited in the late 1920s and “reeled in a fine one-and-one-half pound trout.”


When the County Council votes Tuesday, it’s only deciding whether the site should be labeled historic. That has forced opponents, many of whom work in drug counseling and think the program poses a danger to addicts, to become amateur historians in an effort to prove Trout Run is not significant.

“No treaties were signed there,” Kristin L. Milne-Glasser, a local drug counselor, wrote to council members. “No President was born or died there. No epic battles were won or lost, no proclamations penned, no foreign dignitaries lodged and feted.

“At best,” she added, “Trout Run merits a roadside plaque, inscribed ‘On this site in 1930, Herbert Hoover bagged a big one.’ ”

At a County Council hearing earlier this month, opponents oscillated from the past to the present, arguing that the long-term treatment program, which can cost upward of $30,000, is unsafe and that going for the historical designation is a backdoor way for Narconon to get into the county.

Bruce Dean, the attorney for the project, rebutted those arguments when it was his turn to speak.

“There’s been some discussion about Scientology and how that’s bad,” he said. “It’s interesting. I read an article last week in the Atlantic Monthly about how AA is bad and how the 12-step programs are a farce. I don’t know. I’m a land-use attorney. It was an interesting article. But that’s not what’s before you today.”

A sign lists the "don'ts" along the stream in Thurmont, Md. About two miles of the stream run through the property where Narconon wants to build a drug rehab facility. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The issue, he said, is the property. In 2013, Social Betterment Properties International, a real estate company connected to Scientology, purchased Trout Run for $4.85 million from a limited liability company run by Howard E. Haugerud, a former government official who had been trying to sell the property for years.

Narconon and its representatives then undertook an effort to get the property, also known as Richey Lodge, classified as historic. The county’s Historic Preservation Commission ruled that it was eligible, 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.

During the hearing, council member Jerry Donald grew agitated as the justifications were explained by Denis Superczynski, a county planner.

“What’s so historic about a place where a guy fishes?” asked Donald, a social studies teacher who teaches a class called “Philosophy of Knowledge.”

“From the standpoint of history, our proximity to Washington and the federal seat of power has put Frederick County in a position to have seen many of these historic characters and persons move through our county,” Superczynski answered, noting that Hoover pondered using Trout Run as a retirement retreat. (Donald countered that Hoover instead settled on the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.)

Superczynski stressed that the only way Narconon could use the property for its program would be to designate it as historic, and that meant the owners would have to preserve it. Everyone wins, the argument went.

“So they aren’t trying to save it for history,” Donald said. “They’re trying to change it so they can do something with it.”

Superczynski said: “Correct. And in the process save it for history,” to which Donald replied, “But it’s not going anywhere anyway.”

Opponents tried other arguments, including invoking national security.

“Nobody’s addressed the security issue,” said Ann Lundahl, who lives in nearby Thurmont. “You’ve got Camp David not far from there.”

Though addiction counselors and advocates acknowledge there is a need for more long-term treatment facilities in the area — there is just one, in Emmitsburg — they also raised questions about Narconon.

The organization has settled lawsuits around the country, including a wrongful-death case in Georgia after a 28-year-old man overdosed. Narconon of Georgia’s license was revoked in 2013, according to state health officials.

Ryan Hamilton, a Nevada lawyer who has brought more than 20 lawsuits against Narconon on behalf of addicts or their families, questioned the effectiveness and safety of a program that relies on lengthy sauna sessions and readings by Scientology’s founder.

In Frederick, Lundahl said she was alarmed by Narconon’s connection to Scientology.

Narconon officials vehemently deny that the program pushes Scientology, describing it as completely secular in its approach. After the hearing, Yvonne Rodgers, a Narconon official, said, “We’re definitely going to have to get some true information out in terms of the questions that were raised.”

“Drug and alcohol addiction claims hundreds of thousands of lives and wreaks havoc with families and communities across this nation and abroad,” she said in an earlier e-mail. “Narconon has helped tens of thousands escape this trap. Our graduates go on to lead successful and happy lives.”

Narconon’s Facebook page posts success stories about its graduates, including Jill Barbera, a 54-year-old California woman who said she overcame alcohol and prescription drug abuse through the program.

“It worked for me, and that’s what’s important,” she said in an interview, adding that she wasn’t recruited into the church, and Scientology was never discussed.

Rodgers said the Trout Run facility would be licensed by the state. A spokesman for Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the group inquired a year ago about an application but has not filed one.

The County Council tabled a vote until its next meeting. At least one member signaled opposition, but Kirby Delauter, the council member who fought the use of his name in a newspaper, dismissed some of the arguments against the project as beside the point.

“I’m not here to determine whether someone can get into Camp David,” he said. “I’m sure the Marines up there are well equipped to keep people out.” And he rejected criticism of Narconon, declaring, “I’m not here to judge Scientology.”

The only issue that matters, he said, is the one on the agenda: “To Consider Designation of ‘Trout Run (Richey Lodge)’ located at 12929 Catoctin Hollow Road, as a Listed Site on the Frederick County Register of Historic Places.”