Narconon rehab center on hold in South Walton

NW Florida Daily News/January 15, 2008

Miramar Beach - A local drug and alcohol rehabilitation center is in a "holding pattern" after some residents objected last spring and summer to its plans to expand into South Walton County.

Twice last year, Narconon Gulf Coast Inc. tried to buy two beach homes that would have been used as an "educational center" for patients who have already completed a 30-day stay at the company's Destin facility, said Barnett Gilmer, spokesman for Narconon.

As of now, Narconon has no plans for any more expansion, Gilmer said.

"We're pretty much in a holding pattern," he said.

Narconon was first interested in a beach home at 747 Scenic Gulf Drive last spring that would have been converted into a 30-bed residential facility. But after protests from nearby residents, Narconon dropped the plan. It then looked at a house at 263 Snowdrift Road to the east for a 28-bed residential facility. Again, Narconon faced stiff opposition from people who lived in the neighborhood.

Gilmer said there is a need for a residential rehab center in Walton County. And the proposed educational center would have been the only one of its kind in Walton County.

Sarrah Troncoso, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said Walton County has three providers that offer drug and alcohol assistance, but one deals exclusively with prison inmates and another focuses only on juvenile offenders.

The COPE Center Inc. offers group counseling for people with substance abuse issues, but not an intensive rehabilitation program, said Charity Parker, special projects coordinator for COPE.

When Narconon tried in the past to purchase a home in Miramar Beach, residents and landowners were worried about the stigma a rehab center would bring to the neighborhood. But Gilmer said that they might be misinformed.

Gilmer said Narconon received a letter from Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie Morris that said that there has never been a negative incident with law enforcement at the Destin center or in the neighborhood. The people at the center are there voluntarily.

The proposed South Walton center would have been a place where patients would have learned life skills and continued with their recovery so they could rejoin society without reverting to lifestyles they led before, Gilmer said.

"It might be a difficult decision for a lot of communities, but if there is a need, it would be beneficial to provide the needed services," Troncoso said.

The prospect of acquiring a home in the woods or north of Choctawhatchee Bay is not an option, Gilmer said. The beach feel is something that is important to a patient's recovery.

"The beach is conducive to helping our students," he said.

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