BROOKSVILLE — Area residents expressed concerns about wandering patients, security of their neighborhood and safety of their children.
But in the end, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday approved a special exception to allow a 20-patient, residential treatment program on the east side of Grove Road and north of State Road 50.
The facility, called Westbridge, will specialize in the treatment of patients with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Patients will come voluntarily into the program, which is designed to be set in a comfortable family atmosphere.
There will be no sex offenders or violent offenders and patients will be locked in at night. A fence will surround the 11-acre property and access will be through one gate. Buffers of trees will also ring the site to separate it from the neighbors.
But the details the applicant gave about the security of the planned facility and the types of patients who would be housed there did little to calm the fears of neighbors.
They expressed concern about mentally ill patients being less than 2 miles from three schools and asked why this facility was needed when two other treatment programs, the Harbour and Springbrook Hospital, were just across State Road 50.
Patients from those facilities have already turned up in their neighborhood and Amanda Goodell, whose property is adjacent to the site, said she didn't know why another similar facility had to be planned for that site.
"There's no need for that,'' she said.
She argued that the neighborhood has many children and she worried about having them so close to a facility serving people with mental and substance abuse issues.
While she said she knows these people need help, "I'm just asking for a different location.''
"Putting this facility in this neighborhood will be a major problem,'' said another neighbor, Loretta Deangelis. "I don't think they should be living in a residential neighborhood in walking distance of three schools.''
Neighbor Carol Pulice questioned what would happen to the neighborhood's security if one of the patients had a relapse and escaped.
"My concern is what we are bringing into the neighborhood,'' said neighbor James Lemieux. "I don't want their set back to involve my son. I don't want that in my back yard and it is in my back yard.''
Mary Woods, chief executive officer for Westbridge, assured the commission that the people who would be seeking treatment at the center would not be serious offenders of any sort, but rather young people who are experiencing mental illness and substance abuse. She said family involvement was a part of their program.
Woods also said that at other Westbridge facilities, there have not been problems in the nearby neighborhoods.
One of the landowners, John McRae, said he saw the treatment center as a good transitional use of land separating commercial from residential. He also said that the campus would be secure and the facility would bring 40 good jobs into the community.
Planning commission member Anthony Palmieri said he was concerned that the facility housed people who had "unpredictable behavior.''
"They may also be dangerous. I don't know,'' he said.
Palmieri said he couldn't support the application because part of his job was to prevent any development that could encroach into a residential area and destroy the neighborhood. "In my opinion, this would destroy the neighborhood,'' he said.
Commission member Robert Widmar said he liked the idea of having a transitional land use between the residential and commercial, didn't see any legitimate traffic concerns and with lock downs and a fenced facility, he didn't have a security concern.
Chairwoman Anna Liisa Covell asked whether the usage planned for the site was less intense than the previously permitted use. County Engineer Charles Mixson said that it was a substantial reduction and that traffic impact would be limited.
The commission voted 4 to 1 to approve, with Palmieri casting the sole "no" vote.
In other business:
• At one point in Monday's meeting, Covell had to turn the gavel over to another member and recuse herself from the commission because she and her husband, James, were seeking the board's approval on an application of their own.
The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously granted the Covells a special exception to be able to use their Nobleton home as a gun repair shop. James Covell has been doing gun repairs and special ammunition loads for five years but has not been charging anyone.
Anna Liisa Covell said that, as he retires in the coming year, the shop will help supplement retirement income.
• Monday's commission meeting is the last for Anna Liisa Covell, who has served for eight years, and also the last for Palmieri, who has served for 11 years.
Each said farewells and fellow planning commissioners and representatives of several local engineering firms took the occasion to thank them for their service.
The commissioners also learned that the other senior member of the body, Bob DeWitt, has resigned due to health reasons. The county plans to advertise soon for a replacement.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.