Camp David Neighbors Fight Historic Designation to Keep Out Scientology-Backed Center

The New York Times/May 20, 2015

BJy Andrew W. Siddons

Thurmont, Maryland — Off a winding road in the Catoctin Mountains, rustic cabins with names like Dogwood and Birch border a stream where local lore has it that Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower once fished. The sprawling property, known as Trout Run, was used in the series “The West Wing” as a stand-in for Camp David, the presidential retreat just seven miles away.

Soon, the local council will vote on whether Trout Run should be on the register of historic places of Frederick County, Md., a seemingly simple decision about preservation that has turned into a strange fight about what the property might become.

Since 2013, Trout Run has been owned by the real estate arm of the Church of Scientology. Now Narconon, a drug-treatment program with ties to the church, wants to turn the property into a group home for recovering addicts. Zoning laws would normally prohibit that use in this location, but Narconon found a loophole in a local ordinance intended to encourage the reuse of historic properties.

If Trout Run, which is currently unoccupied, is added to the county’s list of historic places, Narconon could open a drug-treatment facility there. As a result, residents who do not want such a site in their backyard are doing the opposite of what locals often do with potential landmarks: They are trying to convince the county council that Trout Run, despite appearances and presidential connections, is not all that historic.

“It’s a pretty property, with some nice old buildings, where a couple of presidents fished,” said Kai Hagen, the executive director of Envision Frederick County, a civic group, and an opponent of Narconon at Trout Run. “There are other things in our community that are equal or better versions of those camps.”

Mr. Hagen’s views are at odds with the Frederick County government’s planning department, which determined in February that Trout Run “is a rare surviving example of a private residential camp originally developed on Catoctin Mountain early in the 20th century.” The department recommended adding it to the register of historic places.

The council was supposed to vote on the historic designation in early April. But as plans for a Narconon site became more widely known, a small but vocal group of citizens from Frederick and elsewhere in Maryland began organizing and speaking out against Narconon at Trout Run.

Now wary of stoking the controversy, the council has twice postponed the vote. Some members of the council, however, find the issue clear cut.

“The case is very simple for the council,” said Billy Shreve, a Republican member of the council who supports the historic designation. “These historic sites, if no one is occupying them, they deteriorate so fast they become useless. They deteriorate the neighbor’s property values.”

While walking between the property’s log and stone cabins, all in various states of disrepair, Mr. Shreve pointed to cobblestone paths serving as ramps from one to another. “Maybe that was built for F.D.R.,” he said, referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair and is reported to have visited Trout Run.

Opponents, however, brush off the presidential connections as historical footnotes that were unimportant until Trout Run’s previous owners used them to market the property, which in 2003 they tried to sell for $20 million. The property finally sold 10 years later for $4.85 million to Social Betterment Properties International, a company affiliated with the Church of Scientology.

Opponents also say the septic tanks required for a center with at least 30 patients and staff members will pollute the fishing stream. And some say it is odd that a place deemed historically important for the county could be closed to the public.

“They are planning something that is not compatible with the restoration and preservation of Trout Run,” Mr. Hagen said.

But the headline-grabbing outrage is about Scientology. At a meeting that attracted about 20 people to a library on May 12, opponents of the Trout Run plan invited a speaker from Canada to describe his experiences with Narconon.

“Narconon doesn’t treat addiction whatsoever,” said David Love, who, when battling an addiction to prescription pills, entered a Narconon treatment program in Montreal in 2008.

Narconon does not employ doctors or nurses, he said, only former addicts who have gone through the program. They isolate patients from friends and family, he said, by transplanting them to distant cities (Mr. Love moved to Montreal from the west coast of Canada for his treatment). Treatment, he said, consists of quitting drugs cold turkey and studying the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

“Every word that was in the Scientology books was in the Narconon books,” Mr. Love said. “There’s nothing in there about drug addiction.”

When asked, Narconon was open about its use of Scientology’s writings, but it disputed the rest of Mr. Love’s claims. However, dozens of lawsuits filed against Narconon in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma contain many similar allegations.

According to one lawsuit, a program in Florida required “students to spend five hours per day for five weeks in a sauna at temperatures between 160 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit.” Some lawsuits claim that generic drug rehabilitation websites, which ostensibly offer multiple options to those seeking treatment, lead people exclusively to Narconon.

The lawsuits almost uniformly state that participants in Narconon treatment, advertised as a secular program, are told to study books about Scientology.

Narconon and church officials say the program respects the religious freedom of its participants. “You do not have to become a member of the religion to do the program,” said Sylvia Stanard, a Scientology spokeswoman.

The lawsuits tend to be settled before they go to trial, said Ryan A. Hamilton, a lawyer from Las Vegas who is involved in multiple lawsuits against Narconon.

“Certainly somebody could come to the conclusion that Narconon does not want to show this program to a jury,” he said.

Yvonne Rodgers, the executive director of Narconon Eastern United States, defended the plans for Trout Run, citing an increase in heroin deaths in Maryland. “There is an urgent need for effective rehab programs,” she said in an email. “Narconon is here to help turn this around.”

Those who agree with Ms. Rodgers about Maryland’s drug problems nonetheless say that Narconon is not the best solution. “We need more good treatments,” said Dr. Carl Sullivan, the director of addiction programs at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. “We don’t need more fly-by-night, sham treatments that offer hope when they really don’t have anything to back it up.”

The Frederick council has closed the matter for public comment. Until the vote, however, both sides will continue to press their cases.

Mark Long, one of the organizers of the May 12 opposition meeting, indicated that the coming vote, probably in early June, might be the last, best chance for opponents of Narconon. “It’ll be hard to stop them after that, I think.”

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