Hernando County planners deny adult congregate living facility

St. Petersberg Times/September 15, 2009

Brooksville - Plans for a 130-bed adult congregate living facility in a neighborhood off Cessna Drive and Toucan Trail were dashed Monday by the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to deny a special exception that would have allowed the project on property adjacent to a drug rehabilitation center that neighbors strongly opposed earlier this year.

The commissioners cited concerns about the density of the project and its compatibility with the surrounding residential area. They were especially concerned when the applicant asked to drop a proposed condition that would have limited facility residents to those 55 or older.

The 7.6 acres owned by Transmark Construction Corp., the applicant on Monday, was part of a larger parcel permitted for a 150-bed congregate care facility in 1992. That facility was only partially built; then the land was divided, and the parcels were sold separately. One of those other pieces is now the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center.

Earlier this year, the center's owners sought a special exemption to expand the facility, but neighbors objected, and eventually the County Commission denied the expansion.

Owners of the center, which is affiliated with Scientology, have challenged the commission's vote in court.

On Monday, Joe Mason, the attorney representing Suncoast Rehabilitation, urged the Planning and Zoning Commission to turn down the Transmark application.

If it were granted and the court overturns the County Commission denial of Suncoast's plan, the combined parcels would include more beds and buildings than approved in 1992, Mason argued.

But county planning director Ron Pianta said the Transmark application was being treated as a new application. "The previous cap of 150 beds does not apply," he said.

Richard Matassa, speaking for Transmark, said that he was seeking the special exception to build seven more buildings to add to seven already on the site, increasing the available beds from 70 to 130. A buyer was interested in the property and wanted assurance that a facility of that capacity would be permitted.

Matassa also explained that the owner did not want the age limitation because the facility then could accept people younger than 55 who, because of a medical condition, might need assisted living.

Citing the current economic conditions, Matassa also wanted three years, rather than the two requested by county staffers, to begin to use the site for the stated purpose.

Nearby resident Joan Lepore objected to the project, questioning who was interested in buying it and voicing concern that it might be used as additional space for drug rehabilitation.

One of the big arguments residents made against Suncoast Rehabilitation was that its facilities had been for elderly residents until the new owner turned it into a residential drug treatment facility.

"This is strictly a residential area," Lepore said. "This is a business, and a business doesn't belong in a senior area. It doesn't belong in a residential area."

When the county's zoning administrator allowed the drug rehabilitation facility to move into the former congregate care facility, "now Pandora's box has been opened up," said Spring Hill resident Michael Burmann.

Planning commission member Thomas Comunale agreed, saying the project as proposed "does open up a lot of questions."

Since drug addiction could be considered a disease that would require long-term care, dropping the age requirement did raise the question of whether drug rehabilitation could expand onto the site, said planning commission member Denis Riley.

"I'm concerned about the intensity," said acting commission Chairwoman Lisa Hammond. "I don't know if the intensity is appropriate."

She asked Matassa whether the number of units was negotiable. Matassa said the proposed size was necessary to make the project economically viable.

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