Suncoast Rehabilitation Center gets permission to expand

Tampa Bay Tribune/April 14, 2009

Brooksville - Over the fears of a parade of residents concerned about the safety of their homes, families and property values, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday approved the expansion of residential drug and alcohol treatment program in Spring Hill.

Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive sought a special exception to build two dormitories, an administration building and swimming and sports facilities. The expansion would more than double the program from 54 beds from 22 on a 3-acre parcel.

A representative of the operator, Narconon Spring Hill Inc., a Scientology-affiliated organization, told the planning commission that the program is at capacity and that the expansion will provide needed addiction treatment.

The facility had been an adult congregate living facility for years before the new owners purchased it in August 2008. In the early 1990s, a much larger number of buildings and beds were approved for the site when it was part of two other adjoining parcels. But approvals for additional buildings had long expired and the new owners needed new permission to expand.

For 40 minutes, residents of the surrounding neighborhood stepped to the microphone to urge the planning commission to turn down the expansion.

Adjacent property owner Jeanine Bender said she was concerned about the program operators because "so far they have not proven to be good neighbors."

She detailed how workers have cleared trees and bulldozed the burrow of a gopher tortoise on the site. Bender noted there was no longer a noise buffer between her parcel and the center, and questioned whether such a facility should be required to have greater setbacks from adjacent residential properties.

"Can we be guaranteed our safety?" asked another nearby resident, Christina Tretter. She pointed out that the neighborhood had many school bus stops, families with children and elderly residents.

"How do we know drug dealers won't come into the neighborhood?" she asked, also questioning how anyone in the area will ever be able to sell their homes with a drug treatment program in their back yard.

Betty Betz of the Forest Oaks Crime Watch said residents of her community are concerned about issues from traffic congestion to security. The program, she said, "is definitely not in the best interest of our community."

Resident Dan Crescenzi said he had already seen people on the treatment center property "playing basketball at all hours" and swearing. He noted that he only knew the property had a facility for elderly residents at one time.

"My concern is that this is too much for that property," said 39-year resident Stephanie Stonerook.

Resident Joan Lepore expressed concern about patients at the center "walking the street scoping out mailboxes, checking out our houses."

Eric Mitchell, president of the rehab center, told the planning commission that there was security on the site around the clock, and that he did not know of any instances when law enforcement had to be called to the property because of problems.

He also didn't know of some of the incidents of trespassing that neighbors had reported.

Mitchell explained that the facility only accepts people who are voluntarily entering rehabilitation, not those ordered by the court. The center is approved through the state Department of Children and Families.

Mitchell and the builders on the project acknowledged that the county had issued a stop-work order on their land clearing on the site, but noted that they did not destroy a gopher tortoise den and were actually in the process of moving the tortoises.

County staff told the builder that they needed to see copies of all of the permits to do that work.

Planning commission member Thomas Comunale asked whether the applicant was willing to put a 6-foot wall around the property, and member Denis Riley pointed out that it would be a "better barrier" than the fence suggested by staff.

While Mitchell and the builders noted that they have begun installing fence, Mitchell said he was willing to put up the wall but that it might take some time to gather the resources to do that.

With that requirement added to the center's list of conditions for approval, the commission voted unanimously to approve the special exception.

Bender, the next-door neighbor of the center, said she didn't feel that all of her questions had been answered and she planned to talk to some of the nearby residents to find out if they want to try to seek a rehearing of the case before the County Commission.

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