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  1. Hernando

Church rehab camp in Brooksville neighborhood? Community and commissioners say no.

The site of the proposed U-Turn for Christ in Brooksville on Cedar Lane. [JUSTIN TROMBLY | Times]
The site of the proposed U-Turn for Christ in Brooksville on Cedar Lane. [JUSTIN TROMBLY | Times]
Published Oct. 11, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — The Rev. Mike Thornhill wanted to found the first Florida chapter of U-Turn for Christ, a national nonprofit that holds camps for addicts to rehabilitate them through God.

But Thornhill's effort to turn an overgrown, 13-acre lot off Cedar Lane into a religious reform service for as many as 30 male addicts spurred an outcry from neighbors. And members of the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission also were concerned.

At their meeting Monday afternoon, they denied the Clearwater pastor's application, saying it would be better to start the program somewhere other than the quiet Brooksville neighborhood. Community members questioned why he didn't choose a spot closer to the Feather Sound Community Church, where he is a pastor. The proposal still can go before the Hernando County Commission, said a county spokesperson, but the pastor told the Tampa Bay Times he would no longer pursue the property.

The hubub was partly about land use: Thornhill needed the county to rezone the property, and people nearby wanted to keep their neighborhood residential.

It was also about whether the program would benefit the community — and whether a facility without a medical or counseling staff would help people coping with addiction.

• • •

U-Turn wants to deliver addicts "from the grip of addiction in a life and restore a life to the Lord," according to its national website. It uses the Bible as a guide and, at least for the proposed Florida chapter, does not rely on medically trained personnel or addiction-therapy counselors. Admission costs $1,000 for two months, according to the website.

There are well-received faith-based addiction services, said John Harden, the clinical director of BoardPrep Recovery Center in Tampa and founding executive director of the University of Florida Recovery Center.

But U-Turn for Christ doesn't seem to meet standards within the field, he told the Times.

"It's not treatment," he said. He was concerned the group calls itself an "addiction recovery and rehabilitation program."

U-Turn started in California and in the decades since has spread to other states. At least some camps are run by recovered addicts who have gone through the program or one like it, according to its website. In online reviews, multiple people claiming to have attended U-Turn camps described living in harsh conditions.

• • •

Sixteen audience members spoke at the meeting Monday, all but one opposing the proposal.

Most brought up security concerns.

"We don't need drug addicts escaping from there (and) coming into our neighborhood, trying to steal our cars," said Robert Singer, who lives near the property.

Some, including county officials, questioned how the camp's staff would care for the men.

"I think what you're dealing with is basically a medical facility with no trained personnel," said Dan Moose, another neighbor.

Others wondered how the project would impact their property values and argued that the program would bring no local benefit because, according to Thornhill, it would admit no one from Hernando County. Addicts need to be far from their negative environments to recover, he said.

He asked people not to discriminate against addicts and emphasized that he and his team wanted to improve lives.

Officials spent almost an hour weighing the proposal.

"It's like the amateur hour. We just can't be in that position," Planning Commissioner W. Steven Hickey said.

Ultimately, they reasoned that Cedar Lane simply wasn't the place for U-Turn. The panel voted 4–1 to deny the application.

Thornhill told the Times afterward that he "will be going back to our board to talk about next steps."

Contact Justin Trombly at jtrombly@tampabay.com. Follow @JustinTrombly.

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