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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Scientologists Take Md. Zoning Spat to Court

FREDERICK, Md. (CN) - Blaming Scientology opponents for blocking its opening of a Narconon drug-rehabilitation center, the church's real estate arm filed suit for public records.

Filed earlier this month in Frederick County Circuit Court, the Church of Scientology affiliate Social Betterment Properties International says it has had its eye trained for at least three years on converting "Trout Run," a piece of property at 12929 Catoctin Hollow Road, into a Narconon facility.

A 40-acre property near Thurmont, Md., Trout Run lies in the Cunningham Falls State Park, just 7 miles from the famed presidential retreat Camp David.

Social Betterment says designation of Trout Run by the Frederick County Historic Register "is a crucial step" toward opening the Narconon, but that its religious affiliation has denied it a fair shake in the zoning process.

Frederick County Attorney John Mathias emphasized in an email that Social Betterment's lawsuit does not raise any "planning, zoning or land-use issues."

Before the dispute became a referendum on Scientology, Social Betterment says it had made headway in its 2013 application for a special exemption that would let it convert the existing historic site at Trout Run into an addiction-treatment facility and group home.

In addition to a 2013 finding of eligibility by the county Historic Preservation Commission, Social Betterment says the county board of appeals unanimously granted its special-exemption application that year.

The commission recommended Trout Run's placement on the historic register to the county council in 2014, and the placement earned support last year from a county planning board, according to the complaint.

Social Betterment says critics of Scientology changed the tenor of the case once the council held public hearings on the matter in April 2015.

"I don't know what you all know about that, but that is a cult," one resident said of Scientology at the first hearing, as quoted in Social Betterment's complaint.

"Please do not allow this nefarious organization to set up shop in our beautiful county," one email to a council member said, as repeated in the complaint.

Another allegedly warned that "the Narconon program is notorious for it [sic] use of highly questionable, if not illegal, Scientology methods to treat its inmates."

The council denied placing Trout Run on the historic register in June, and Social Betterment says the council simultaneously voted for the county executive to put future applications in this vein on ice. The county executive signed the moratorium on future applications for placement of properties on the historic register one week later, June 9, according to the complaint.

Social Betterment says the council went a step farther earlier this year with its introduction of a bill that would eliminate "group home" use at properties listed on the Historic Register.

"The bill is targeted at a single entity, Social Betterment, and a single proposed use, group homes, because of improper and illegal bias ... [toward] the Church of Scientology," according to the complaint.

Even council member Billy Shreve noted in June, the complaint states, that Social Betterment's "application has been clouded because the record does reflect that there was testimony based on Narconon and Scientology."

In addition to appealing the council's decision last year, Social Betterment asked the county for various communications on the bill. The suit challenging this document production is dated March 9.

Social Betterment says it paid $1,218 for document production but that the county answered its records request with 27 emails missing attachments, and 62 documents that included unexplained partially or wholly blank pages.

The county also "withheld 59 documents claiming they were privileged."

Mathias, the Frederick County attorney, has defended the response to Social Betterment's records request under the Maryland Public Information Act, or MPIA.

"The county has provided a substantial number of documents to Social Betterment," Mathias said in an email. "For a limited number of documents, the County has complied with the MPIA by asserting one or more of the many exceptions to disclosure contained in the MPIA. The county is confident that a court will uphold its assertion of these exceptions."

Jennifer Kneeland and Marguerite DeVoll, attorneys for Social Betterment with the firm Linowes and Blocher in Bethesda, Md., have not returned requests for comment.

The complaint notes that Trout Run was "developed in the 1920s as a fishing camp for an affluent family [and] stands today as a remarkably well-preserved, early 20th century mountain retreat with beautifully crafted mason-work and wood buildings."

Two weeks after the lawsuit's filing, two groups filed a federal trademark complaint in Fort Wayne, Ind., over Narconon marketing.

Taking aim at 40 defendants, the National Association of Forensic Counselors and the American Academy of Certified Forensic Counselors dba American College of Certified Forensic Counselors say the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige and Narconon International are misusing their marks, certifications and logos.

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