Judge turns down Operation PAR's request for rehearing on Spring Hill clinic

BROOKSVILLE — One-half of Operation PAR's double-barreled legal strategy to win permission to open a drug rehabilitation clinic in Spring Hill has missed the mark.

A circuit judge has denied the company's request to quash the Hernando County Commission's decision to overrule the county Planning and Zoning Commission's approval of the company's special exception permit.

Such a ruling would not have automatically given Operation PAR the right to open a methadone clinic in the former day care center that sits on 1 acre of commercially zoned property on Kass Circle. Rather, it would have required the County Commission to hold another hearing.

The company had already started to fight on a second, higher front by filing a petition in federal court, claiming the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That petition asks the court to require the county to issue the special exception permit; it seeks unspecified damages and reimbursement of legal fees and expenses.

"We are continuing with the federal case for clients who deserve to have services in their community," said Marvin Coleman, Operation PAR's vice president of community and business relations. Company officials had not seen Judge Lisa Herndon's order by Wednesday afternoon, Coleman said.

The planning board in July voted 4-1 to approve the special exception permit, finding that the treatment clinic was compatible with the area. Special exceptions do not require County Commission approval, but the commission can opt to review the zoning board's decision.

Commissioners decided to do that after nearby residents and business owners complained. In August, after two hours of discussion and impassioned pleas from the clinic's would-be neighbors, the County Commission voted unanimously to reverse the planning board's decision. Opponents said they had safety concerns about recovering drug addicts coming to the clinic; others worried that their commercial plazas along and near Spring Hill Drive would lose tenants.

In the Circuit Court petition, attorneys for Operation PAR argued that the commission violated county code. The code provides for the review of the planning board's decision to confirm that it was based on competent evidence, but does not expressly allow the commission to conduct another hearing with new evidence, the petition contended.

The petition also states that the evidence presented by opponents during that hearing was prejudicial and based on "conjecture, fear and unsupported lay opinion testimony on behavior patterns of patients being treated for addiction."

Herndon disagreed.

After reviewing the record and transcript of the County Commission meeting, the judge determined that "procedural due process requirements were met and there was sufficient competent, substantial evidence supporting the Board of County Commissioners' denial" of Operation PAR's permit.

The federal petition hinges primarily on a claim that the county discriminated against recovering drug addicts. Since addicts are protected as disabled people under the ADA, and since the act applies to zoning decisions of cities and counties, the commission cannot make decisions that block addicts' access to treatment, the petition argues.

The attorney representing the county, Joseph R. Flood Jr. of Orlando, has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case, and Operation PAR has until Jan. 27 to submit a response, records show.

The Spring Hill clinic would be the first of its kind in Hernando, and Operation PAR's fifth, to offer a Medication Assisted Patient Services program. The program uses methadone to wean addicts from opiates such as pain pills, heroin and OxyContin. Patients have already gone through initial detoxification.

Patients also receive a physical examination, a laboratory workup and an in-depth assessment of their family support and employment status to create an individualized treatment plan, which includes regular counseling. The bulk of patients would arrive between 5:30 and 11 a.m. The volume would decrease until the clinic closes by about 2 p.m., Coleman has said.

Operation PAR's appeal is also financially motivated because it now owns the 1-acre commercially zoned property. The purchase was contingent upon the county zoning board's approval, and so the $335,000 deal was finalized in July.

Company officials had hoped by now to start a public relations campaign to help inform residents about the clinic's services, but have decided that might complicate its legal efforts, Coleman said Thursday.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Judge turns down Operation PAR's request for rehearing on Spring Hill clinic 01/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 6:44pm]

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