SPRING HILL — Denied by the Hernando County Commission, the company that wants to open a drug treatment clinic in Spring Hill is asking the courts for help.
In a petition filed with the Circuit Court, attorneys for Operation PAR argue that the commission violated county code and discriminated against recovering drug addicts by rejecting its plan to open a methadone clinic in an existing building on Kass Circle. The petition asks a judge to quash the 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 automatically give Operation PAR the right to open the clinic in the former day care center that sits on 1 acre of commercially zoned property. Rather, it would require the County Commission to hold another hearing. The ruling could be a potent part of the company's arsenal if commissioners rehear the case.
The company also plans to fight on a second, higher front by filing a petition in federal court, claiming the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Marvin Coleman, the company's vice president of community and business relations. The petition should be filed by the end of this week, Coleman said.
"By not allowing that clinic to open there, it discriminates against individuals who are suffering from substance abuse by denying them the ability to have treatment in their own community," Coleman said.
The planning board in July voted 4-1 to approve the special exception permit, finding that opening 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.
The county code provides for the review of the planning board's decision to confirm it was based on competent evidence, but does not expressly allow the commission to conduct another hearing with new evidence, the petition contends.
The petition also states that the evidence presented by opponents during that hearing was prejudicial.
"Conjecture, fear and unsupported lay opinion testimony on behavior patterns of patients being treated for addiction is not competent evidence," the petition states.
The company also disputes that a drug treatment clinic requires a special exception permit in the first place. The facility is no different than other medical clinics allowed under the existing commercial land use and zoning designations, so requiring a special exception is also prejudicial, the petition contends.
"If Operation PAR proposed a medical weight loss clinic treating food addiction and Hernando County had treated it differently than another medical clinic, there would be a hue and cry of outrage and rightfully so," the petition states. "The Clinic should not be distinguished from the dentist's office or the medical office located in the same commercial district."
The local petition includes a legal argument that will be a key element of the federal case: Recovering drug addicts are protected as disabled people under ADA, and since the act applies to zoning decisions of cities and counties, the commission cannot make decisions that block addicts' access to treatment.
A statewide needs assessment analysis conducted by the Florida Substance Abuse Program Office found the need for a treatment program in Hernando County. There are currently more than 70 clients who live in Hernando but who must travel to receive treatment at Operation PAR's clinic in Port Richey, Coleman said.
Assistant county attorney Jon Jouben declined to comment because the county had not received a copy of the petition.
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 use 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 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.
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.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]