Jehovah’s Witnesses fighting to expand facilities in Rockville -- Gazette.Net







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Members of a Rockville Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses are asking the mayor and council not to zone their property as historic, because it could prevent them from expanding their worship space.

The mayor and council held a public hearing Monday on whether to designate 628 Great Falls Road as historic.

The Rockville, Maryland, Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses owns that property and two adjoining addresses. It has proposed building an assembly space onto the back of the property while maintaining the house.

The West End Citizens Association and the Rose Hill Falls Homeowners Association have been trying to block any expansion on the property over concern that too many institutions are moving into the neighborhood or expanding facilities.

A neighbor nominated the property for historic designation, but the congregation opposes the designation because it might prevent the expansion.

Historic designation would mean that the Historic District Commission would have to review any building plans for the property.

The commission cannot rule officially on whether the new building would be allowed unless the property is actually designated as historic.

Congregation members said Monday that the commission did a courtesy review of the plans, and they were under the impression that the building would not be allowed to proceed as currently proposed if the property receives historic designation.

The commission has said the house is a good example of the types of homes built in Rockville during that time period.

The house on the property was built in 1925, according to mayor and council documents. Recently, many of the people pushing for historic designation have focused on a community of free African Americans who owned the property and some of the surrounding properties in the 1800s.

The Bessie Hill House at 602 Great Falls Road also is associated with the black kinship community, as it is commonly called, and already has received historic designation.

The house at 628 Great Falls Road was built after the black kinship community sold the property to someone else. Proponents of the historic designation have argued that it should be protected in part because having a residence on the property carries on the tradition of residences that were actually part of the kinship community.

At the hearing, Tim Ramsburg said the house was abandoned before the congregation purchased it in 2008 to expand in the future. In the meantime, the congregation has made repairs and maintained the house. A missionary currently lives in the home.

Ramsburg has attended services with the congregation for 40 years.

He said the new structure is planned to be about 3,700 square feet with a seating capacity of 135.

Ramsburg said plans have been redesigned several times to allay the concerns of homeowners in the area. One revision kept the house intact.

“Each time an objection was raised, we tried to work with that objection,” he said. “...We’ve tried to have good will. We’ve tried to work with the community. But at this point, we’ve done everything that we know ... to do.”

Ramsburg said the congregation is not sure it could build a new facility if the property is zoned as historic. Another member of the congregation said they could have to revise their plans to build a smaller facility or to reduce parking, which would create more traffic problems for the neighborhood.

The Historic District Commission and the Planning Commission have recommended designating the property as historic. The public record for comments on historic designation will remain open until Monday.