NEW PORT RICHEY — Plans for a veterans resource center have fallen apart amid intense neighborhood opposition and new revelations about the former Army chaplain spearheading the project.
The Rev. Morson Livingston confirmed Sunday that his group, the St. Jude's Veterans Resource Center, has withdrawn its plans for a facility at the former Lutheran church on Ridge Road and Sycamore Drive. The nonprofit group had proposed a 30-bed transitional housing unit, plus counseling and other programs to help get homeless vets back on their feet.
"We don't want this to be in a community that does not want it, and we don't want to make anybody uncomfortable," Livingston said.
Neighbors turned out in force at a town hall meeting last week raising concerns about the facility, which they feared would bring wandering homeless men into their community. A few days after that meeting, Walter Lamerton, the real estate agent helping Livingston line up the location, withdrew from the effort. Lamerton told the Times he did not want to be part of a project that was so unpopular with the neighbors, and he said he had learned some "disheartening news," though he declined to elaborate.
The Times obtained records showing Livingston, who served as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army, had been reprimanded for "deplorably unprofessional conduct" after three women complained he had sexually harassed them. One woman said Livingston touched her behind; two other women said he propositioned them with sexually explicit language.
"I am shocked by your conduct," Brig. Gen. Joseph F.H. Peterson wrote in a reprimand to Livingston dated April 24, 2001. "I cannot imagine a more egregious breach of the confidence placed in you. As a Catholic priest and an officer in the United States Army, an unquestionably higher standard is expected of you."
Records show Livingston was honorably discharged, although with an "NA" re-entry code that would require a special waiver if he ever tried to re-enlist.
The Times reached one of the women listed on the complaint, who confirmed that she and others complained about Livingston's conduct. Reached Sunday by phone, however, Livingston denied anything happened.
"That is not true," said Livingston, who left the priesthood after leaving the military. He also said such allegations had "nothing to do" with the proposed veterans resource center.
But those allegations played a part in the decision of Maj. Gen. Wayne Rollings and his wife, Gwen, to pull out of the project, Mrs. Rollings said. Her husband was going to run the facility with Livingston.
"I think that we need to back off because there is enough inconsistency in everything that has been going on, that we just want to take a step back," Mrs. Rollings said, acknowledging that the neighbors' opposition also factored into the decision.
St. Jude's had applied for nearly $800,000 in grants — $493,675 from the Veterans Affairs Department and $299,000 from Pasco County government — to buy and renovate the former Lutheran church. But Lamerton said St. Jude's was canceling its contract to buy the site, and the Lutheran church has withdrawn the rezoning request that would have been needed for the facility.
Tanglewood East resident Misty Hart said she wondered why Maj. Gen. Rollings and his wife didn't look into Livingston's past.
Mrs. Rollings said they just wanted to help veterans, and since Livingston had an honorable discharge, they did not look any further into his background.
Tanglewood East residents Anne Corona and her husband, Frank, said Sunday that they were relieved that the resource center won't be coming to their community. Neighbors in Tanglewood, Golden Acres and Hidden Lakes were also pleased.
"I just felt that the project itself was ill-conceived both in the choice of location as well as the overall planning," Anne Corona said. "My husband and I are gratified the residents rallied to support the opposition maintaining the safety and serenity of our community."
Times staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet contributed to this report. Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.