Suncoast Rehabilitation Center appeals Hernando County Commission decision

St. Petersburg Times/July 25, 2009

Spring Hill - Hernando county commissioners may have thought the controversy over plans to expand a drug rehab center died when they voted down the plan in June.

Wrong. The property owner and construction company that wanted to expand the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center filed an appeal in Circuit Court late Thursday asking that a judge throw out the commission's decision.

Toucan Partners LLC and Gulf Seas Construction Co. sought to erect new buildings at the 3-acre site off Cessna Drive to expand the bed count from 21 to 54. But hundreds of neighbors signed petitions opposing the plans and packed the commission chambers to raise concerns ranging from neighborhood security to fears of falling property values.

Residents were also critical of county staffers who had made a determination in 2008, just after Toucan Partners bought the site, to approve a drug rehabilitation facility to replace a congregate living facility for the elderly.

Although the original use was compatible with their residential area, they said, a drug rehabilitation center is not.

Representatives for the center said they needed to expand to help more people and that their expansion would be an asset to the surrounding community.

The center provides the Narconon drug treatment program. Narconon has ties to Scientology, according to its Web site.

The Planning and Zoning Commission initially approved the expansion but residents asked for a hearing before the County Commission. During the commission meeting, commissioners voted 4-1 to turn down the expansion.

Their reasons included a finding that an expanded facility would be incompatible with the residential neighborhood where it was located, would fail to meet needed buffering from neighbors and could have an adverse affect on the public interest, according to the resolution the commissioners approved in late June.

The legal action filed Thursday by McGee & Mason P.A. argues that the commission agreed to review the planning commission's decision due to the "hue and cry of the neighborhood voicing non-fact-based objections."

The action claims the commission denied the rehabilitation center due process in its handling of the case review, failed to follow the law and failed to base its denial on "competent and substantial evidence."

"The only matters presented by any member of the audience rising in opposition to the approval ... were 'not in my backyard' (NIMBY) arguments by residents from the neighborhood," according to the court paperwork.

In citing a District Court opinion in another case, the filing parties state "NIMBY arguments, without fact-based support therefor, are not competent and substantial evidence and cannot support quasi-judicial orders of local government boards."

Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben said Friday that the county was aware of the legal action seeking a court review but could not comment on the contents.

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