BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday turned down the expansion of a drug rehabilitation center in a residential area of Spring Hill off Cessna Drive.
Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to deny Suncoast Rehabilitation Center's request to expand from 21 to 54 beds on a 3-acre parcel. Commissioners listened for more than an hour as neighborhood residents voiced concerns for the safety of children and elderly residents.
Representatives of the center's program, Narconon of Spring Hill, which has ties to the Church of Scientology, argued that they needed to expand to serve more patients. They noted that all patients come to the center voluntarily and argued that there was a great need to provide services with growing drug problems in Florida and in the area.
Resident Michael Burmann argued that neighbors weren't opposed to drug rehabilitation. "We just don't think it belongs in a residential area.''
Burmann said the county should not have allowed the firm that bought the property last year to inherit the special-use permit that allowed the previous owner to operate a congregate care facility for the elderly. The new use shifted to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Residents submitted more than 400 petitions opposing the expansion of that center.
Joan Lapore, a 21-year resident, is concerned about neighborhood traffic and worries that the expansion would create more issues in the community. "Don't put another 30 people in this neighborhood,'' she said.
Cessna Drive resident Denise Budd said rehab centers are needed, but she doesn't think drug addicts can be trusted. "They're not being watched as they said they would be,'' she said.
Commissioners also heard rehab center residents talk about the program's value.
Resident Shawn Jones said he saw that Suncoast Rehabilitation Center has been "working miracles'' with those who come for help. "Suncoast Rehabilitation Center has, in my estimate, saved my life,'' Jones said.
"What we have here is a lack of understanding of what's going on,'' facility president Eric Mitchell said of neighbors' concerns.
He said he has invited people to the center to see how it operates, and he has support for the expansion from area residents and businesses. Mitchell also explained that patients are not a danger to their community.
"These are people like you and I who have made mistakes in their lives and are trying to correct them,'' he said.
The property had once housed an adult congregate care facility, but when the current owners bought it last year, the county's zoning administrator determined that a drug rehabilitation center would fit in the same land use category.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell voiced concern about the change in use and its compatibility in the neighborhood.
Commissioner Rose Rocco said she visited the location and was somewhat concerned to see the gate open and residents sitting around outside in sight of the neighborhood. She also noted that, because the property is up on a hill, even a fence wouldn't block the view of the site from neighbors.
Only Commissioner John Druzbick voted against the denial.
In other business:
• County commissioners approved a scaled-back adjustment to water and sewer rates, which will phase in over the next five years and will help pay for $150-million in water and wastewater projects. In the first year, water customers and water and sewer customers will see a slight decrease in their bills. The proposal will ultimately boost water and sewer rates by 25.2 percent between now and 2014.
• The County Commission voted to buy one parcel for $118,500 and to begin action to condemn the last six parcels on Elgin Boulevard needed for the planned road-widening project. Commissioner Jim Adkins asked whether the project could be delayed during the budget crunch, but County Engineer Charles Mixson said the county must spend $2 million in state money and local impact fees.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.