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Operation PAR may sue Hernando over clinic rejection

SPRING HILL — Operation PAR doesn't want to have to fight for the right to open a drug treatment clinic on Kass Circle, but the company is prepared to do so.

"Could it come down to a lawsuit? It could," Marvin Coleman, the company's vice president of community and business relations, said Wednesday.

"We would much rather this be something resolved from a community basis. But there have been some legal boundaries that have been overstepped."

Company officials are meeting with attorneys this week to consider the next step, after the County Commission's decision Tuesday to block a plan to open a methadone clinic in a 5,300-square-foot standalone building that formerly housed a day care center.

The company is especially motivated because it now owns the 1-acre commercially zoned property. The purchase was contingent upon the county Planning and Zoning Commission approving a special exception use permit to allow for the clinic. That approval came last month, and the $335,000 deal was finalized on July 13, property records show. Such permit exceptions are final unless the County Commission chooses to hear a case and overrule the planning board's decision.

The commission voted to do just that after two hours of discussion that included impassioned pleas from nearby residents and business-owners.

Opponents said they had safety concerns about recovering drug addicts coming to the clinic; others worried that their commercial plazas would lose tenants.

Residents described a neighborhood where pedestrians regularly circulate between nearby apartments and businesses ranging from an ice cream parlor and a pizza restaurant to a beauty salon and a grocery store.

Barbara Wilhite, a land use attorney representing a nearby resident, told commissioners the clinic is not compatible with the neighborhood and that the board can reject the plan if it "adversely affects the public interest."

The concerns and fears are understandable but unfounded, said Coleman, who did not attend the meeting but was briefed by company representatives.

"The county attorney cautioned (the commission) at one point that you can only make your decision based on fact, not opinions or fear, and I'm not sure that actually happened," Coleman said. "It seemed somewhat slanted from our perspective."

The company still hopes there's a chance to address the community's concerns by making a "soft appeal" to residents and the County Commission, Coleman said. But the company is also considering its only legal remedy: filing an appeal in Circuit Court in an attempt to overrule the commission's decision.

That could be an uphill fight, said Darryl Johnston, a Brooksville land use attorney who has no connection to the case.

"If you can show the decision was based on fear and opinion and not competent evidence, (the appeal) will be granted," Johnston said. "But it's very difficult to overturn a County Commission's decision."

Johnston said he has pursued several such appeals for clients in his career and more often than not has been unsuccessful. The outcry of would-be neighbors can sometimes be enough, Johnston said.

Wilhite, a former assistant county attorney for Pasco County, has represented clients on both sides of that appeal process.

"The standard of review is very deferential to the County Commission's decision," she said. "I feel very comfortable the court would uphold what the commission did yesterday."

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, or MAPS. The program aims to wean addicts from opiates such as pain pills, heroin and Oxycontin.

Patients 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. or so, Coleman has said.

The company has faced neighborhood opposition before. In 2007, the company opened a similar clinic in Port Richey despite the protests of neighbors. A year later, residents told the St. Petersburg Times that their fears had been unfounded, and Port Richey police said there have been no major incidents at the clinic.

That's still the case, Port Richey Police Lt. Don Young said Wednesday.

There have been a couple of battery calls due to incidents between clients in the clinic parking lot, and officers on occasion are called to take clients into custody under the Baker Act, Young said. People don't loiter, though, and there has not been an increase in calls in the area for other crimes.

"For the most part, it's been very quiet," Young said.

Clients from Hernando and Citrus must trek to the Port Richey clinic, so the company looked for sites throughout Hernando to serve them, Coleman said.

He noted how one of the opponents on Tuesday claimed to support drug treatment in general, just not on Kass Circle.

"If your friends, if your neighbors can't get the help in your community," he said, "then where?"

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

Operation PAR may sue Hernando over clinic rejection 08/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 9:16pm]
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