Scientology rehab gets planning OK

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Thursday, March 16, 2006.

Valley Press Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission gave final approval Wednesday to plans for a Scientology-based drug rehabilitation center in Leona Valley.

Narconon Southern California won the commission's OK for a 66-bed treatment center at a former boarding school at 36491 Bouquet Canyon Road, south of Spunky Canyon Road. Clients will live on site and typically pay more than $20,000 for a three-month stay, according to Clark Carr, president of Narconon International.

The conditional-use permit prohibits Narconon's accepting registered sex offenders as clients and requires the facility to engage in community outreach and develop a 24-hour hotline for the community to call in case of emergencies.

According to documents submitted to the county, the group plans to have 33 staff members at the facility, for a ratio of two clients for every staff member. About 29 staff members would be on duty from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and four staff members would be on duty overnight.

In January, the commission closed a public hearing on the proposal and gave it an initial approval. On Wednesday, the item was on the consent calendar, which generally means no public testimony is accepted. The proposal was approved on a 4-0 vote, with one commissioner absent.

Shortly before the hearing, the commission received letters from the community, including one from the Leona Valley Town Council expressing opposition to the rehab facility.

The letter said two informal surveys of the community showed 55 of 65 respondents did not support Narconon's plans, compared to eight who expressed support and two who had no opinion.

Residents wishing to appeal the decision will have 15 days from the date Narconon receives its approval in the mail from the planning commission.

Any appeal, which involves a fee, would be made to the Board of Supervisors in Room 383 at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles.

If the decision is appealed, the supervisors would decide the issue.

"There was a tremendous amount of information coming in to register opposition to the Narconon facility," said Norm Hickling, an aide to county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose 5th District includes the Antelope Valley. "We've heard a great deal of comment about it, and a lot of very emotional comment. Supervisor Antonovich still encourages everybody with an opinion to share it with the supervisor's office."

The treatment program affiliated with the Church of Scientology had its community airing March 6 when a voluntary committee of townspeople laid out information learned about Narconon.

For Green Valley resident Michael Huff, any drug rehabilitation center ought to be welcomed into the pastoral setting.

"If Narconon does what it takes to ensure the public's safety and help addicts who pay a lot and volunteer to get better, the world's all the better for it," the retired Marine Corps officer said.

Leona Valley resident Steve Cronk countered that any rehabilitation center would defeat the purpose of why he moved out of Lancaster.

"I think that a lot of people who live here have been here so long they lost sight of what's happened on the other side of the hill," he said, referring to Palmdale and Lancaster.

"Anyone who believes this will not have an effect on the area is naïve."

Some Leona Valley residents accused Narconon backers of packing the meeting with Scientologists. At the meeting, people opposed to Scientology approached the podium, accusing the Narconon planners of lying. They were shouted down by people in the crowd, some of whom were not recognized by Leona Valley residents.

Clark Carr, president of Narconon, said he thought it was a fair meeting. "We really want to learn the concerns of the residents."

Carr said residents' fears have been expressed before in other communities, and Narconon has won over residents by being a good neighbor. "We have 135 centers in 45 countries, and this is our 40th anniversary; we know how to live within a community," he said.

The test of whether the planning approval will outweigh local sentiments now relies on the intentions of the facility's prospective neighbors and the voting weight of five county supervisors.

Valley Staff Writer James Loughrie contributed background material to this story.