After 15 years of renting and borrowing space for meetings in Columbia, Savage and Laurel, the members of the Howard County-based Patmos Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons are poised to return to their roots in Ellicott City, with a new lodge of their own.
The fraternal organization, which was first chartered in 1822 and had its lodge in the same building in Historic Ellicott City for almost a century before selling it in 1997, was verbally granted a conditional use to build a new lodge on a residential property off Route 108 by county hearing examiner Michele LeFaivre on Monday, March 19.
The 1.8-acre property, which the organization has a contract to purchase, is near the intersection of Route 108 and Centennial Lane, and is immediately next to the Iron Bridge Wine Company, though otherwise surrounded by other residential lots. A single-family home and another out building would be removed from the property under the deal.
Fraternal organizations are an accepted conditional use for residential properties in the county, but must receive approval for that use.
Though final building plans are not completed, the Masons have indicated they would like to build an almost 5,800-square-feet lodge — 20 feet high, 50 feet wide and 115 feet long — with basement storage space, 58 parking spaces and trees and fencing around the perimeter of the property.
S. Brent Morris, the lodge's senior warden, told LeFaivre the organization "designed the building with as large a footprint on the property as we could get" — in part to keep their options open in future planning phases — but has no intention of building a lodge that is out of line with what already has been discussed with neighbors in the nearby Beaverbrook community.
"It's a modest building in simple colors that we think would blend well with our neighbors," said Morris, a former Beaverbrook resident himself who now lives in Laurel. "We have no interest in building something that would stand out."
Two neighbors who spoke before LeFaivre in support of the lodge expressed appreciation for the organization's efforts to work with them on the project, including their hosting an informal meeting about the project with the Beaverbrook Community Association.
Jim Citro, whose property borders the proposed lodge property to the south, called the Masons' proposal the "best use of the property" possible, considering other forms of commercial development that have come to the area in recent years.
"I feel the gentlemen of the Freemasons are honorable guys and will keep their promises," Citro said.
Janice Sklar, another adjacent neighbor, said she agreed with Citro that the Masons would make "wonderful neighbors" who would build an "established, well-managed facility" on the property as opposed to more commercial development.
Morris said his organization would have meetings of 15 to 20 members at the lodge twice monthly, as well as smaller gatherings of leadership members and new members learning customs and traditions. The group would also likely have two or three larger meetings of about 40 to 50 members per year, such as its annual installation of new officers and a "Ladies' Night" for members and their spouses.
Members may want to "cook hamburgers on a summer night" outside every once in a while, but would otherwise conduct meetings and other events inside, Morris said.
In all, the organization has 180 members, including about a dozen new, younger members in their thirties. About 90 members live outside of Maryland, and only about 30 or 40 live in Howard County, Morris said.
"We meet primarily because we enjoy each other's company," Morris said of the nature of the organization, noting members also provide one another "moral support" and work on charity initiatives.
Freemasonry, which Morris said has records of its existence dating back as early as 1390 in England and as early as 1733 in Maryland, is "of a religious nature," but is not a religion and urges its members to honor their own religions, according to the lodge's website.
There are 110 Mason lodges and about 16,700 organization members in Maryland, Morris said.
'A tremendously dangerous road'
LeFaivre granted approval for the conditional use, which won't be official until she issues her written ruling in coming weeks, under the condition that the organization hire a "traffic coordinator" — perhaps an off-duty police officer, she said — during larger events, to help people negotiate traffic coming onto and off Route 108.
She also supported Morris's stated intention to gate or close off the lodge's parking to the public.
LeFaivre's approval can be appealed within 30 days of her written decision being issued, and Morris said his organization will wait to see if an appeal is filed before finalizing the existing contract the group holds with the property's current owner.
According to property records, the property is currently worth more than $230,000.
If there is an appeal, it would likely center around the impact a new building would have on the safety of Route 108, an issue raised by Frederick Polcari, a Beaverbrook resident and the only person to speak in opposition to the lodge before LeFaivre.
"My opposition has nothing to do with the Masons. It has to do with the building of such a massive building on a residential road," Polcari said.
The "backdoor commercialization" of the residential area — namely the county's allowing the Iron Bridge, the Columbia Inn at Peralynna Manor, the Clark's Elioak Farm petting zoo and the many nearby recreational soccer fields to operate there — has made Route 108, a minor arterial road owned by the State Highway Administration, a "tremendously dangerous road," Polcari said.
"This is not the fault of the state. This is the fault of the county," Polcari said.
Polcari objected to earlier discussion about the lodge being rented out to other groups affiliated with the Masons, and asked LeFaivre to grant the conditional use only if she restricted use of the lodge to the Patmos members themselves.
"If it comes back that they can only use it for their purposes, I have no objections, because it's going to be much smaller," he said.
LeFaivre considered that request for a moment, before realizing that the lodge's intention to rent the space to other affiliated groups had been clear in project documents submitted to county agencies, and that those agencies had not raised it as an issue.
Morris said the organization is in the position to purchase the property and build a new lodge because of funding gained from the sale of its space in the annex to the Howard House hotel in Historic Ellicott City in 1997; funding brought to the organization from the Landmark Lodge of Brooklyn, in Baltimore, which merged into the Patmos Lodge eight or nine years ago; and a generous bequest left to the organization by a former member who died.
Jim Coker, the group's secretary and a Beaverbrook resident, said that if the contract goes through on the property, the group will have a lot of work on their hands before they would be able to start building the new lodge.
"It's a pretty toxic piece of property, to be honest with you," he said.
The property has asbestos and lead paint, as well as two septic tanks that will have to be removed, Coker said. It also will have to be connected to county utilities, in part because the lodge will not be allowed to use two wells currently on the property for drinking water.
Coker said the organization hopes to break ground on the new building by May 22, 2013 — the 191st anniversary of their chartering.