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Planning board rejects religious center

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


LECANTO -- A Christian group hoping to build a spiritual treatment center suffered a major setback Thursday.

The Path of Citrus County needed county approval to build its 30-bed center off Menasha Street in central Citrus. But the Planning and Development Review Board, after hearing substantial public comment, voted 5-1 to deny.

"I'm taking everything in stride. It was wonderful how both sides were calm and peaceful," said DuWayne Sipper, executive director of the project.

The Path is a non-profit, interdenominational group. It has spent several years trying to establish this kind of facility, including one failed effort to turn the old jail in downtown Inverness into a shelter for the poor and homeless.

The most promising prospect emerged several months ago, when the Path arranged an option to buy 20 acres off Menasha, which is west of County Road 490 and south of State Road 44.

Leaders hoped that land could be the site of their center, which would be a comfortable residence where people could receive intensive, Bible-based, Christian spiritual care.

Before exercising that option, the group wanted to see what the planning board would do.

The land is zoned for low-density residential development. A treatment center is a permitted use in such areas, but only if the board would agree that the project was compatible with the neighborhood and met other criteria.

Some residents told the board Thursday that the center would not be welcome because it would attract criminals and other unsavory characters.

Even more important, some property owners along Menasha said they would deny permission to pave Menasha, a private road that they control. The county would require the Path to accomplish that task so that emergency vehicles could access the treatment center.

County staffers, who have recommended approval of the plan, agreed to help the Path find other potential sites for the facility.

But "No matter where we build, we're going to be around people," Sipper pointed out after the board hearing.

The Path's board of directors is scheduled to meet Saturday . "I'm pretty sure we're going to move on" and stop pursuing the Menasha site, Sipper said.

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