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Spring Hill drug rehabilitation center planning expansion

SPRING HILL — The controversial drug rehabilitation center that landed Hernando County in federal court has announced it will double in size by the end of the year, four years later than originally planned.

Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive will increase its patient capacity from 27 beds to 60, according to a news release.

The release ties the need for expanded services to the federal Affordable Care Act and what the new law will do to expand health services for those who previously could not afford them.

It is unclear how the expansion will proceed since the county has received no application for a permit nor been ordered by the court to issue a permit. But the expansion will happen, according to Diane Stein, president of JoTo Public Relations, the company that issued the release.

The rehab center operators "are very passionate about their mission to help people overcome drug addiction," Stein said.

In 2009, the owner of the 3-acre parcel where the center sits, Toucan Partners, sought a special exception use permit to expand from 22 beds to 54 beds. Residents of the surrounding neighborhood objected, bringing forward petitions and filling the County Commission chambers to tell stories about why the center wasn't compatible with their neighborhood.

The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the permit, but residents pushed for a hearing before the County Commission, and the County Commission heard the neighbors' concerns and overturned the approval.

Toucan Partners took the case to Circuit Court, then moved it to federal court. Narconon Spring Hill, which operates the center, was also a plaintiff in the case.

Last month, a jury found Hernando County guilty of intentional discrimination against Narconon under the federal Fair Housing Act. But instead of awarding Toucan Partners and Narconon the $6.24 million they requested, the jury awarded just $74,000 to Narconon, nothing to Toucan Partners and attorney's fees. The amount of the fees has not yet been determined.

That's partially because just days after the verdict, Narconon filed a motion for an injunction to force the county to approve the permit allowing the expansion.

"Based on the jury's finding that the county intentionally discriminated against Narconon Spring Hill in denying the January 2009 application, the court should declare the county's actions of June 9, 2009, and June 23, 2009, null and void and declare that special exception use permit SE0901 is in full force as of the date of the judgment,'' Narconon's attorney, Ethan Loeb, wrote.

The county responded that the judge should not order the county to hand over a permit allowing the expansion because the court was never asked to do that in the original filing or in any motion until after the jury had completed its work.

"Plaintiff Narconon Spring Hill now, for the first time throughout litigation of this matter, requests that this Honorable Court order a permanent injunction against Hernando County forcing Hernando County to issue a permit to plaintiff Narconon Spring Hill,'' the county's attorney, Douglas Noah, wrote in his response.

Also, it wasn't the business operator, Narconon, which originally sought the permit, it was the property owner, Toucan Partners, "so . . . any permanent injunction requiring Hernando County to issue a permit would apply only to plaintiff Toucan," Noah wrote. "The jury found that plaintiff Toucan was not entitled to any relief on any of its claims."

The judge has not yet ruled on the question.

Narconon is a drug rehabilitation program based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, and is financially supported by Scientologists.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Spring Hill drug rehabilitation center planning expansion 03/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 8:26pm]
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