SPRING HILL — Hernando County has settled a legal fight with Operation PAR, clearing the way for the nonprofit to open a methadone treatment clinic on Kass Circle.
The settlement, signed by a federal judge Wednesday, ends a yearlong dispute over the County Commission's decision in 2011 to revoke a special exception permit for the clinic.
As part of the agreement, the permit will stand with some amendments, including adding lighting on the site and a 6-foot opaque fence around the north, south and west property lines. Operation PAR will drop its complaint and stop pursuing financial damages. Both sides will pay their respective attorney fees and legal costs.
"It's definitely a victory for our clients, and we truly believe it's a victory for the community as well because much-needed services will be provided there," said Marvin Coleman, the company's vice president of community and business relations.
Attorneys for the county's insurance company advised commissioners several months ago that their best option was to reach an agreement, county Commissioner Dave Russell said Thursday. The two sides then entered mediation.
The resolution heads off a long legal battle that could have ended in a costly judgment against the county and higher insurance premiums, he said.
"We did what we could. But there comes at point in time when you have to settle," Russell said. "I don't know if this could have been drug out for years or not. But ultimately the legal entities were convinced it was not a winnable case for the county."
The county's Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-1 in July 2011 to approve the special exception permit, finding that the plan to open the clinic in a 5,300-square-foot standalone building 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. 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.
Operation PAR filed suits in both the 5th Circuit and U.S. District courts. In the federal case, the company argued that the commission's denial violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act because drug addicts are considered disabled.
The company also had a financial stake in the case. Its purchase of the 1-acre commercially zoned property for $335,000 was finalized upon the county zoning board's approval.
The Spring Hill clinic will be the first of its kind in Hernando, and Operation PAR's fifth in the region, to offer a Medication Assisted Patient Services program. The program uses methadone to wean addicts from opiates such as pain pills and heroin.
A statewide needs assessment conducted by the Florida Substance Abuse Program Office found that Hernando had a need for a treatment program. There are currently more than 100 clients who live in Hernando but must travel to receive treatment at Operation PAR's clinic in Port Richey, Coleman said.
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 that 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.
The company had already planned to install additional outdoor lighting and a fence on the site, not just for the neighbors' benefit, but for the safety and confidentiality of its clients, he said.
Operation PAR has met with similar resistance from neighbors of its other clinics, but the fears and concerns have been unfounded, Coleman said.
The company is willing to work with its new neighbors in Spring Hill, too, he said.
"If there is any type of community concern or recommendations to make things better," he said, "we always try to avail ourselves to do those type of things."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.