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Spring Hill drug rehab center will have to go through county to expand, judge rules

Published Apr. 3, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — A federal judge has denied a request by the operator of a Spring Hill drug rehabilitation center to force Hernando County to give the center a permit to expand.

With the denial, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore closed the case filed against the county in 2011 by Toucan Partners LLC, the owner of the property, and Narconon Spring Hill Inc., the operator of the program.

Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive in Spring Hill announced a month ago plans to expand from 27 to 60 beds. According to a news release, a larger facility would help meet the increased demand for services under the federal Affordable Care Act.

With the judge's ruling, the owner of the center will have to go back through the county Planning and Zoning Commission to argue for the expansion. No application for a special use permit has been received by the county, said Ron Pianta, assistant administrator for planning and development.

Toucan Partners sought to expand from 22 to 54 beds in 2009. But residents surrounding the 3-acre parcel were adamant 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. Undaunted, the center sued the county first in circuit court, then in federal court.

Earlier this year, a jury found Hernando County guilty of intentional discrimination against Narconon under the federal Fair Housing Act.

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.

The amount of attorney's fees has not yet been determined.

After the verdict, Narconon filed a motion for an injunction to force the county to approve the permit allowing the expansion.

But the judge decided that "Narconon has not demonstrated a substantial likelihood that the county will continue to act in a discriminatory manner."

The judge also noted that it was Narconon, which won a portion of what it sought in the lawsuit, seeking the injunction; it had been the property owner — Toucan Partners — that had sought the original permit, and Toucan lost its claims in the lawsuit.

Narconon's attorney, Ethan Loeb, did not return a call or an email seeking comment on the outcome.

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.

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