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County must pay in case against Scientology-affiliated rehab

Published Jul. 2, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County got off easy when a jury levied just $74,000 in penalties after finding discrimination in a 2009 land-use decision. But the county was not so lucky in the matter of paying the other side's costs.

Last month, the county reached an agreement to pay $425,000 in attorneys fees, expert witness fees and other costs over the federal lawsuit that Toucan Partners and Narconon brought against the county over denying an expansion in an existing drug rehabilitation center.

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.

Also, the case is not yet finished.

A mediation over a potential appeal is scheduled for later this month, according to Cristi Charlow, the county's risk manager.

The fees the county owes will be paid by Travelers Insurance, the county's carrier.

Toucan Partners LLC, the owners of the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive in Spring Hill, sought to expand from 22 to 54 beds in 2009. Residents surrounding the 3-acre parcel argued that a drug rehab center was not compatible with their neighborhood.

The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the permit, but it was overturned several weeks later by the County Commission.

Toucan Partners and Narconon Spring Hill Inc., the operator of the facility, took the county first to circuit court, then to federal court.

Earlier this year, a jury found that Hernando County violated the federal Fair Housing Act by intentionally discriminating against Narconon.

Other counts of the federal suit were settled in the county's favor, and, while Toucan Partners and Narconon sought $6.24 million in damages, the jury awarded just $74,000 and attorney's fees to Narconon. The jury awarded nothing to Toucan Partners.

Earlier this year, the center announced plans to expand to meet the growing need for drug treatment but was unsuccessful in getting the federal judge to require the county grant a new permit as part of the lawsuit conclusion. To date, no new application has been made for that expansion.

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

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