Neighbors protest plans to expand Suncoast Rehabilitation Center in Spring Hill

St. Petersburg Times/April 13, 2009

Spring Hill - Jeanine Bender stood at the corner of her Cessna Drive property one day last week shaking her head as yet another vehicle came up the driveway next door.

On the adjacent property, heavy equipment was parked, and workers were putting up a large wood-panel fence. Trees that once separated Bender and her husband, Frank Weiss, from the buildings in the distance were gone.

Now she has a clear view of the residential treatment center in her neighborhood and a clearer view of why she didn't want to see the program, based on the teachings of the founder of the Church of Scientology, more than double in size.

"It was so quiet back here, very quiet and secluded back here," Bender said. "Now there is this construction traffic and constant activity.

"To us, it's ruined our lifestyle already."

Bender and her neighbors plan to raise their concerns today when the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission is slated to consider granting a special exception for the 3-acre site that would allow its owner, Toucan Partners LLC, to add three buildings to the two already on the site.

That would allow the program, the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center, to expand from 22 to 54 beds and add a 4,144-square-foot administration building, a swimming pool and a basketball court.

Center president Eric Mitchell said the facility must grow to meet the growing demand for its services.

"We have filled the facility and we have a lot of people reaching out to us wanting to enroll in the program," Mitchell said in an e-mailed response to questions by the Times. "We would like to add the additional dorms so that we may help more people get off of drugs and alcohol so that they can lead successful, productive lives."

The extra amenities are planned because exercise is part of the overall process and because patients want to keep that activity in their lives, Mitchell said.

The site previously had been used as an adult congregate living facility. But when Toucan Partners purchased the site in August for $450,000, the elderly residents were moved out, Bender said.

Soon after, the patients of the rehabilitation center moved in, and Bender said she has had security concerns since then. On several instances, including just a few days ago, Bender said she has found clients and employees of the center on her property after her dogs started barking at the intruders.

When she raised the issue with Mitchell, "he told me that the patients would be supervised and wouldn't be off the (treatment center) property, but that's not true. They're walking in the street at night."

While Bender said that she doesn't want to be judgmental, she said she worries about the safety of anyone coming into the yard where her dogs are sometimes tied, as well as the security of belongings on her property.

Not 'good neighbors'

In his response to the Times' questions, Mitchell wrote that the company's clients are all voluntarily in their program and that none is in court-ordered treatment. He said that they are supervised and that there have been no incidents involving law enforcement.

The fence is under construction to provide more security, Mitchell noted.

But Bender wonders whether the owner will follow whatever rules are established by the county if it grants permission for the expansion because, earlier this month, the county had to stop the center from working on the site because it did not have all the proper approvals.

"To me, they haven't been good neighbors from the get-go," Bender said.

Mitchell said the center has its permit for the fence, and the only other issue concerned sand blowing onto the neighbors' properties, which was resolved using a silt screen.

As letters from the county about today's hearing went out to property owners around the treatment center, Bender said residents began to talk to one another and express their disapproval of the expansion.

"The neighbor down the street has been writing letters to several agencies," Bender said. "We're shocked that something so commercial and so big could be put into a residential neighborhood."

Addition within limits

The county staff is recommending approval of the conditional use permit with a variety of provisions. The staff report notes that the site at one time included 11.6 acres and had permission for 15 buildings and 150 beds for adult congregate living.

Since that time, the rest of the property has been divided, with Bender's property part of what was separated off. Another piece of the original site is a parcel owned by a neighbor. It has seven buildings on it that were used for an adult congregate living facility, but are now vacant.

"The expansion of the subject site (54 total beds) in conjunction with the southern parcel (60 total beds) does not exceed the original approval for 150 beds," according to the staff report.

Mitchell described a program of treatment for patients who would stay at the facility an average of 90 to 120 days. It is not like an affiliated medical detox facility in New Port Richey where patients stay for about seven days through the acute withdrawal stages of detoxification from alcohol or drugs.

Life-skills training

The Pasco facility, known as the Novus Medical Detox Center, opened in spring 2007. It described its approach in a November 2006 newsletter: "Because prescription drug use is so pervasive in this country, many people who want Scientology auditing services are on these drugs and now there are few, if any, sane medical facilities that can withdraw them."

Mitchell said the corporation that owns the Spring Hill center is Narconon Spring Hill Inc. Narconon is a secular, nonprofit group that has 145 units in 45 countries around the world.

The program uses life-skills courses modeled on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

But Mitchell said the drug treatment facilities are not religious, and religious affiliation is not asked of clients. He said the program differs from standard drug and alcohol treatment programs in the following way:

"Our program believes in and works towards stable, permanent recovery from alcohol or other drug addiction.

"We do not subscribe to the hypothesis of incurable disease and are proud that three out of four of Narconon program graduates live drug-free and ethical lives."

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