The Rockville City Council has asked city staff to prepare an ordinance that would give a historic designation to a property owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation on West End.
The council’s 3-1 vote Monday authorized city staff to draft an amendment to the city’s zoning code, so that the land and property at 628 Falls Road would be considered a historic district. The amendment is expected to come before the Mayor and Council for a vote later this month.
“We just have to trust that the [Historic District Commission] and the Planning Commission ... deals with it properly and above board, taking in the considerations of the congregation,” said Councilman Mark Pierzchala.
The congregation has been fighting to expand its Kingdom Hall from its current building on Falls Road to a parcel it owns next door. The problem is that the city’s Planning Commission and Historic District Commission say there's a home on that parcel that has historic significance.
A historic designation would not prevent the congregation from expanding, but the congregation claims that it would put too many constraints on its plans to expand. They want to build an assembly space, keeping the house in tact, according to meeting testimony.
According to city records, the residence reflects a “front-Gable-and-wing” style of architecture common to homes built during the 1920s. Only eight such houses exist in the city, according to Peerless Rockville Executive Director Mary van Balgooy’s testimony at public hearing Sept. 30.
Later research traced the property’s land to a community of freed African Americans. Rockville Historic Preservation Planner Robin Ziek said the Historic District Commission did not make its recommendation on the basis of that later research.
Council members Bridget Donnell Newton and John Hall Jr. said preserving the property’s historical ties were what drove their votes.
“I think that there are occasions where the government has a compelling, legitimate, fact-based reason for doing this and I'm prepared to support it,” Hall said.
Councilman Tom Moore, the opposing vote, said labeling the property as “historic” would be inappropriate, a misuse of historic designation for “other reasons.”
“There was a great desire to block this church's expansion for years, before the idea of historically designating this house came up,” Moore said.
At prior council meetings, congregants noted that the home had been vacant for some time up until the Rockville congregation purchased it in 2008.
“All during that time, no one seemed to care anything about this property, whether it should be historic or not. It just sat.” said Tim Rambsurg, a congregant who’s been a member of the Rockville Kingdom Hall for 40 years.
Ramsburg said the Kingdom Hall hosts five congregations for as many as 150 people each, spurring the need for more space. But plans to grow were met with resistance. A West End resident nominated the property for historic designation.
Ramsburg said the congregation has tried to reach a compromise, an attempt to address neighbors’ concerns.
“We tried to have good will, we've tried to redesign and work with the community. But at this point, we've done everything we know ... to do,” Ramsbrug said.
Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio abstained from voting. She said she was "torn."
“It's very hard to go back on what you believe is the right thing to do, and I want to protect the community as much as anybody does,” Marcuccio said. “But I also feel you have to protect people's rights, as well.”