Neighbors say site not used properly Terrific Inc. exception is up for renewal

November 14, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, the Howard County Board of Appeals granted Terrific Inc. -- a nonprofit Washington group that cares for children ill with the AIDS virus -- permission to use a more than $600,000 farmhouse on 32 acres in the rural western part of the county as a retreat center for its 65 employees.

But since then, neighbors of the property on Ed Warfield Road in an area known as Daisy say the group has not had any retreats there and has used it to hold weekend parties with as many as 20 cars in the driveway at a time.

Terrific's special exception to hold retreats there with no more than 10 people comes up for renewal in January, and some of the property's neighbors are pressing the appeals board to not renew it.

Meanwhile, the head of Terrific Inc., the Rev. Debbie Tate, about two weeks ago bought the property for $655,000 from a Texas company owned by the Countess Albina du Boisrouvray, the European heiress who originally donated the lavish house and land to the charity in 1993.

What the charity -- which runs five homes for children with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Washington -- or Tate intends to do with the house remains unclear.

Tate lives in Rockville, but is a minister at Daisy United Methodist Church. She did not return repeated phone messages over the last month and twice canceled appointments with a Sun reporter. Terrific Inc. employees and two of its board members, in brief conversations, said they knew nothing about the Daisy house.

"At this time, we're going through some things and I'm really not sure what our plans are with the farmhouse," said Jospeh McCarley, who identified himself as Tate's nephew on Tuesday at Terrific's headquarters in Northwest Washington.

The Daisy property is called the Francois Xavier Bagnoud Farm, after the son of the countess who died in a plane crash in 1986.

The furnished Tudor-style home sits almost a mile off the road on land that has been put into the county's agricultural preservation program. It has horse stables, a 6-foot waterfall at the edge of its pool and neatly trimmed landscaping.

Neighbors complain that Terrific repeatedly broke one of the key conditions placed on its use of the property as a retreat by the appeals board: to hold retreats only on weekdays.

They cite at least 10 instances -- ranging from parties to what appeared to be meetings, another prohibited activity -- at the house in the last three years. On one occasion this summer, neighbors say, flares were put at the end of the driveway, apparently to direct guests.

Neighbors say such activities violate the calm of their rural residential area, if not the appeals board exception.

"We moved out here so we could look outside, see our children playing while our neighbors were jogging along or cutting their grass and not worry," said Robert Vechery, who lives beside the property. "There's a rhythm to this neighborhood where you know who's coming and going.

"But that business with cars coming and going and who knows who at any time ruins that."

Added his wife, Diane: "A retreat center never belonged in this neighborhood. The next thing you'll know is IBM will be out here, saying they want to use a residential house as a retreat center for their employees."

Frances Kohl, whose backyard backs up to the Terrific Inc. house, said: "In three years, we haven't seen a single retreat held there and no signs of Reverend Tate living there as a resident, but instead we've heard loud music, seen balloons carried in, and it really makes us question their sincerity.

"They've got a million-dollar property over there that so many people would love to have, and it's certainly not being used in any way to help children with HIV."

County officials say Terrific isn't technically in violation of its exception -- because it never established a starting date for its planned retreat center.

"If they haven't officially commenced their operation, we can't find them in violation of anything," said William O'Brien, chief of the Division of Comprehensive Planning and Zoning. "That leaves the Tates to do what they want in the meantime. They've got just as much a right as any resident to have a birthday party or anything on their property."

Another county planner said that it would be very difficult to determine when the house might be in use as a home or as a retreat.

"There's a house that's essentially vacant for weeks and then every now and then people come out and use it, is that for residential use or is that for retreat use?" said the planner, Robert Lalush. "On the one hand, if it's a country house, and they come out to enjoy it, that's fine. But on the other hand, if they're bringing a bundle of people out that could be considered using it as a retreat spot."

Neither of those uses is a violation of the county's exception, but officials say that when the house is used as a retreat the exception's limits -- no more than 10 guests, three cars and use only during weekdays -- come into play.

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