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Feb 22 10 10:14 AM

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Neighbors don't welcome methadone clinic
Operation PAR plans to move its facility to a residential area. Residents are unhappy.
By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published June 28, 2007


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PORT RICHEY - Melanie Virtuoso and Jonathan Mitchell saved for seven years to buy their first home. When they started house hunting last year, they were drawn to Washington Street.

Crime was down. Neighbors seemed friendly. And there was enough land for their 11-year-old daughter to play outside. So they moved into their home in October.

Now, the engaged couple are worried about a methadone clinic slated to move in on their street. They say it will ruin the neighborhood's image and send their property values plummeting.

"We worked so hard to find the right place, " Virtuoso said, "and all of it is being taken away in a split second."

The couple were among a group of concerned residents who showed up at a City Council meeting Tuesday night to speak out against the clinic, run by the nonprofit Parental Awareness and Responsibility, better known as Operation PAR.

The organization, which provides mental health and substance abuse help, has operated a methadone clinic in a strip mall at 6446 Ridge Road for the past 10 years. But with that space becoming more cramped, the group plans to move to a facility inside a medical complex at 7720 Washington St.

Marc Kleinman, who oversees Pasco's Operation PAR office, said the clinic has grown in the past year from about 450 to 550 active patients.

Kleinman said patients who are addicted to painkillers come in voluntarily and set up an appointment with a doctor.

Patients return every day for the next three months to drink a small orange-colored methadone cocktail, Kleinman said, which helps decrease withdrawal symptoms. Patients also meet with Operation PAR counselors to address their addiction.

Kleinman said he is aware of the outcry about the clinic's new location, but said Operation PAR's purpose is to eradicate drug use, not worsen it.

"Nobody wants drugs out of the community more than PAR, " he said. "Our patients realize they have a life-threatening disease and need some serious help. I understand their residents concerns, but they're the same as ours."

While safety is chief among residents' concerns, law enforcement calls to Operation PAR's Ridge Road office during the past year have been minor, according to reports from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

The most severe was a broken window at the clinic discovered by an Operation PAR manager March 28.

City building official Ed Winch said officials from Operation PAR first approached him about the Washington Street location in December. They asked for zoning designation on the 4, 800-square-foot property, which is commercial with an allowed use as a medical clinic.

Winch knew the idea of a methadone clinic in a residential neighborhood would spark controversy, so he called City Attorney James Mathieu.

"We discussed it, and there was nothing wrong with their application, " Winch said.

So the city granted Operation PAR officials a building permit last month. They can move in anytime they want, Winch said.

That didn't sit well with Virtuoso, Mitchell and other residents. They said Winch should have informed them as soon as Operation PAR officials inquired about the property.

"They didn't let us know because they knew we'd be worried and scared, " Virtuoso said. "We had no red flags for this. We deserved to know."

During Tuesday's meeting, council member Nancy Britton, who lives near the clinic's new site, said she spoke with Winch about the clinic.

"I've worked hard to change things over there, " she said. "After speaking to Mr. Winch, I realize there's nothing we can do. They have the right to be there."

Even so, Judy Parisi, who lives near the clinic's new site, left Tuesday's meeting worried about safety in her community.

"I get nervous because there's a lot of children over this way, " she said. "The thing that makes me mad is property value. I wonder if our house is even going to be worth squat.

"I say they (patients) need the help, but it's not the right place, " she said. "And we'll keep fighting this."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Fast facts

What's next

City officials sent a letter to Operation PAR officials Wednesday asking a representative from the organization to attend the next City Council meeting at 7:30 p.m. July 10. If no one from Operation PAR is able to attend, Mayor Richard Rober will plan a town hall meeting allowing residents to voice their concerns.

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