Hernando commissioners approve mediated settlement over Narconon expansion plans

Tampa Bay Times/August 26, 2013

By Barbara Behrendt and Joe Childs

Brooksville -- Without comment, Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday accepted a mediated settlement awarding $1.97 million to Narconon, the operator of a Scientology-affiliated drug treatment center in Spring Hill.

It apparently ends the legal fight that erupted when the commission turned down the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center's proposal to expand from 22 to 54 beds in 2009.

But also on Tuesday, commissioners learned from a story in the Tampa Bay Times that, after being turned down by the county, Narconon expanded anyway, renting three properties elsewhere in Spring Hill.

At one leased site, Narconon provided daily therapeutic classes. Two houses became living quarters for staff, trainees and overflow patients. None was licensed, as state law requires, until the Times sought comment from operators late last week.

"I'm shocked about that," commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said after Tuesday's meeting. He said he planned to talk to the county attorney "and see where we stand."

"I don't think that they should have been doing that," Commissioner Nick Nicholson said. "I think they should be getting county approval for whatever they've been doing."

Commissioner Diane Rowden also said she had some "serious legal questions" that would need further investigation. "If you want an adult congregate living facility in a home, that's a residential district. … Our code enforcement should be all over this.

"What, do they think they have a ticket to do anything they want in any location?"

The Florida Department of Children and Families, which has licensed the center at 8231 Cessna Drive since it opened in 2008, had not decided Tuesday whether to conduct a formal investigation into Narconon's leasing of off-site properties.

Officials from Narconon disclosed the rentals during court proceedings last year. Last week, as the Times asked whether the rentals had required licenses, center director Tammy Strickling applied for a license for one of the sites. The DCF issued it Friday, on a probationary basis.

Narconon and Toucan Partners, owner of the Cessna Drive property, sued the county in June 2011, alleging it intentionally discriminated against the facility, violating the federal Fair Housing Act. The jury found the county liable for discriminating against Narconon and awarded $74,490 in damages.

Narconon, which had sought more than $6 million, appealed and won a new trial. The parties went to mediation several weeks ago, reaching the settlement. The county's insurance will pay all but a $5,000 deductible, which the county paid some time ago.

Jury foreman Ed Bocchino, a retired financial adviser, said "ouch" on Tuesday when informed of the $1.97 million settlement.

"It's unfortunate for the taxpayers and services of Hernando County," Bocchino said.

"If there was any discrimination, it was extremely mild," he said. The jury's award "matched the degree of discrimination," in his view.

He recalled Narconon's team gasped with exhilaration when the guilty verdict was read. They sat in "stunned silence" when the $74,000 figure was announced.

Months ago, the county issued a permit for the center to expand, and recent activities indicate that may happen, but seemingly by a different company.

Last week, representatives of a drug treatment program known as Rivermend Health, based in Annapolis, Md., attended a pre-application meeting with county building officials concerning the Cessna Drive site.

"The site plan indicates the addition of three buildings, one administration building and two dormitories, and renovations of the two existing dormitory buildings," according to Jodi Singer, the county's building department operations manager.

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