Rockville’s Planning Commission recommends declaring house historic despite owner’s objections -- Gazette.Net



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Rockville’s Planning Commission has recommended designating a home as historic over objections from the property owner, who says that designation is neither needed nor wanted.

Those who supported the designation said it would preserve the building in the future, especially if it is sold.

The commission voted 4-2 Wednesday evening to recommend historic designation for the house at 628 Great Falls Road, which is owned by the Rockville, Maryland, Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Commission Chairman Jerry Callistein and Commissioner David Hill voted against the recommendation. Commissioner Kate Ostell was not at the meeting.

The request for historic designation came from a neighbor, with strong support from the West End Citizens Association, which has in recent months mounted a campaign against institutions’ plans to expand in the neighborhood with a petition against the congregation’s expansion and by successfully opposing an in-home daycare’s plan to add more children. The congregation is planning to expand its facilities with a separate building on an adjacent lot that would extend onto the house’s 12,000-square-foot lot.

Jody Kline, an attorney for the congregation, said the designation is unnecessary.

“That house has never been in better shape than it (is) today,” he told the commission.

Kline said the congregation plans to keep the house’s appearance as it is today and to continue using it as a residence for a missionary.

The house was built in 1925, and the Historic District Commission recommended designation in part because it is an example of early 20th-century suburban development in Rockville. Some supporters of the proposed designation have also referenced an African-American community that had residences on the property in the late 1800s, arguing that preserving a residence on the property would help preserve the memory of that earlier community.

In voting to recommend historic designation, Commissioner Jack Leiderman said it would protect the home in the future, especially if the congregation sells it one day.

“The city has a responsibility to take a long view of this,” he said. “... We know that properties can be bought and sold.”

Commissioner Dion Trahan also voted to recommend designation, saying Rockville “is under siege, some would argue,” by encroaching institutions.

Callistein agreed that the city needs to preserve the character of Rockville’s neighborhoods, but said he could not support historic designation for the house when the property owners opposed it.

“This house was falling apart, falling down, probably would have been condemned if the church hadn’t bought it and resurrected it, and the thanks they are getting for that is that control of their property is being taken away from them,” he said. “... I cannot in good conscience support imposing essentially a restrictive homeowners association, a restrictive set of covenants, on an organization or on a homeowner that has already taken more pains, more effort to rebuilt and preserve the property than anyone else bothered to do.”

Hill questioned whether the city’s master plan allowed for people other than the property owner to submit requests for historic designation. He added that if it was the city’s policy to allow people to apply for historic designations to property they do not own, it should make that clear in the planning documents.

The Mayor and Council are expected to make a final decision on designating the home as historic this fall.

ewaibel@gazette.net