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Facility zoning faces challenge

A hearing officer will decide next month whether Brown Schools' facility fits within Citrus County's zoning laws.

The battle over the Brown Schools started in the spring and sped through the summer. Now fall is here, and a few versions of the fight still remain alive.

Black Diamond's property owners, as well as its developer, maintain that Citrus County improperly granted zoning approval for Brown to operate a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents inside the building that once housed the Heritage Hospital adult psychiatric program.

They further argue that, absent proper zoning approval, Brown would be ineligible to receive its operating license from the Department of Children and Families.

And they most recently have announced plans to accuse Citrus County of violating the state's growth management laws by clearing the way for Brown.

"Each one is in a different legal framework, and the deciding body is" different, said Gary Maidhof, who directs the county's department of development services and thus is involved on all those fronts.

Representatives from Black Diamond and Brown have met several times in recent months but have reached no resolution. Brown started receiving children in July and has continued to operate while the legal wrangling takes place.

Oct. 17 is a date that both sides have circled on their calendars. At 10 a.m., a hearing officer is scheduled to consider Black Diamond's zoning argument, as well as the Brown Schools' defense. The public is invited to _ but will not be allowed to participate in _ the hearing, which will be held at the Lecanto Government Building, 3600 W Sovereign Path.

The hearing officer will render his decision several days or weeks after the hearing.

Brown announced its Citrus County expansion plans in the spring and met almost immediate resistance. Lecanto, Beverly Hills and Black Diamond residents publicly worried about safety: What would happen if the adolescents left the grounds and found their way into the communities?

Brown tried to allay those fears, saying that around-the-clock security was good and that they would construct a fence around the property. They further reminded residents that the children receiving treatment suffer from emotional and psychiatric disorders; although some have been accused of criminal activity and sent to Brown until they are competent to proceed in the legal system, many have no criminal histories at all and should be viewed sympathetically as victims, not threats to public safety.

Brown held a public forum in Beverly Hills and, later, an open house. Representatives from the company have addressed civic groups and fielded phone calls from worried residents. Brown even agreed to decrease the number of adolescents it would bring here as part of its "competency restoration program," which handles kids from the juvenile criminal court.

Those overtures might or might not have been enough to soothe residents. But the residents didn't have much choice, actually: The matter was being considered in the court of public opinion only.

Black Diamond changed that.

Land-use lawyer Clark Stillwell represents Black Diamond Properties, Inc., and Black Diamond Property Owners Association, which represents all property owners and residents in the subdivision. An Orlando lawyer, Julie Hions O'Kane represents Black Diamond property owner Marvin Query.

Those lawyers have challenged the county's decision to allow Brown to operate under the 1986 development order that allowed Heritage to operate at the facility, which is just off County Road 491 north of County Road 486. They argue that Brown is using the facility for a different purpose and thus must go through the zoning process, which includes public hearings, if it wants to set up shop there.

The lawyers' appeals, which are similar, likely will be consolidated for the Oct. 17 hearing. The Land Development Code requires Brown, as the beneficiary of the county decision, to defend itself at the hearing. Brown has retained Inverness lawyer Jim Neal as well as other counsel.

The hearing officer either will allow the county's decision to stand or remand the matter for further county review. Under the latter scenario, the county could issue a new order or stand by its original order, Maidhof said.

The party that loses in the appellate battle may go one step further and ask a circuit judge to review the matter. Maidhof expects that to happen.

"Ultimately, I see this whole thing going to court," he said.

The hearing officer's opinion, and whatever happens after that opinion becomes public, also will affect Black Diamond's challenge under the state law and with Children and Families.

Meantime, Hions O'Kane, the Orlando lawyer, has filed a motion asking the hearing officer to require Brown to stop operating while the appeal is pending.

The Land Development Code requires that all "work" at the site in dispute cease when appeals are pending. The county has interpreted that to mean that construction, such as the fence Brown wanted to build, must be put on hold. But the Orlando lawyer and her client argue that the entire operation must cease.

The hearing officer has not yet ruled on that request.