The Battle of Trout Run
It’s a potentially toxic mix. A local elected body, a controversial religious organization, competent staff and a small group of vocal civic activists.
Sounds familiar, right?
Remember the local Muslim group that wanted to construct a retreat center for their regional worshippers, a peaceful place to escape the bustle of the DC and Baltimore metro areas? That little saga played out under our former commissioners-type government. This time it’s the new County Council.
Trout Run is picturesque rustic retreat built on 450 acres at the base of the Catoctin Mountains, a mile off of Route 15 on Catoctin Hollow Road. Just gazing through the fence driving by, one can appreciate the beauty and serenity, along with the obviously historic nature of the stone lodges, wooden pavilions and peaceful pathways. Beside a babbling trout stream, it isn’t hard to imagine President Herbert Hoover, attempting to escape the stress of driving the U.S. financial system to ruin, lightly flicking a fly rod out into the stream.
Built in the early 1920s, Trout Run was acquired by an aide to President Hoover. As mentioned above, no doubt Mr. Hoover needed a place to escape the oncoming Great Depression. Sort of ironic that the lean-to villages erected in large cities in the late 20s by thousands evicted from their homes were called Hoover-villes, while Hoover himself relaxed in quiet luxury up off of Catoctin Hollow Road in northern Frederick County.
Previous attempts to sell Trout Run by its former owner failed to produce the reserve minimum. It wasn’t until the real estate management company of the Church of Scientology stepped in that the land changed hands.
Almost 410 acres of the entire parcel are in permanent preservation protection, but the roughly 40 acres located along the stream, home to the lodges, pavilions and recreational amenities is where the controversy lies.
The Scientologists operate a drug rehabilitation program called Narconon. They have locations in other parts of the country, but none in Maryland. The plan is locate a Narconon program for a handful of addicts at Trout Run.
The ownership group sought approval from the Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals to use the facility for that purpose. The BZA gave their approval, conditioned on the group obtaining a designation of historic property from the County Council. It was during the council’s initial consideration that controversy raised its ugly head.
First, a group of local citizens expressed their concerns over the practices, reputation and theology of the Church of Scientology. A recent documentary film highlighted the odd behaviors and worship practices of the church, no doubt fueling some of these concerns. While one can’t blame NIMBYs from having unfounded – or even justified – fears, what or how a religious group does to address the needs of its particular flock should never be part of a governmental review of an application.
Second, a one-time former elected county official suggested that the Council should seek more knowledge about the church and the drug rehab program prior to making their decision. A favorite quote regarded whether the group was seeking the historic designation in order to obtain tax credits. Setting aside the simple fact that the group’s motives are none of his business, he said they didn’t need them because “They’ve got more money than God, so to speak.” Spoken like a real rocket scientist, or maybe just a religious bigot.
A more interesting perspective was expressed by Jerry Donald, the council member representing District 1. Mr. Donald, who teaches history at Middletown High School, wondered aloud why anyone would think a historic designation for the Trout Run camp is appropriate.
Let’s see: The camp was established specifically for the benefit of a sitting President of The United States during a turbulent time in our nation’s history. The buildings, facilities and amenities reflect an early-1900s architecture and design. Several presidents visited the camp prior to the creation of Shangri-La just to the north, including Franklin Roosevelt, who fished from the small footbridge over the trout stream that stands today. Hollywood stars and starlets from the golden age also wandered the camp, along with untold barons and baronesses of industry, government, media and culture.
One might wonder what we’re teaching if this doesn’t qualify as history worth designating.
So, where will all of this end? The answer is: it depends. It depends on whether the council approves the historic designation. It depends on whether the council recognizes that their purview does not extend to passing judgment on the tenants of a valid religion, be it Voodoo, Islam or Scientology. Put simply, it depends on whether the council follows the advice of their highly-qualified staff, who have already recommended the designation be granted.
If not, if the voices of NIMBYism and intolerance trump common sense and sound legal judgment, this issue will follow past practice and end up in expensive and unnecessary litigation.