Despite fierce opposition from neighbors, Wildwood Special Magistrate Kris Vanderlaan Monday approved a zoning special exception that allows a Christian drug rehabilitation program to build a campus on the city’s west side.
The decision allows House of Hope to establish a permanent home and on the site after the program was forced out of its previous location two years ago when the property was sold.
“I appreciate you coming here today and speaking,” Vanderlaan said after listening for nearly two hours to comments opposing and supporting the exception. “All of the issues that came up today are relevant. Some of them will be addressed by the city.”
He said opponents had not shown a clear danger or effect on neighbors or property values to warrant his rejection of the permit.
The year-long program plans to serve up to 20 men with drug problems. The 10-acre site is about three-fourths of a mile west of U.S. 301, north of the intersection of State Road 44 and Kilgore Street.
Two years ago, Sumter County rejected an effort by House of Hope to purchase property adjacent to this site after neighbors argued that it didn’t belong there.
Since losing that property, the program has operated in houses, including a current home with six residents on Cleveland Avenue.
At Monday’s hearing, neighbors raised the same objections as two years ago while volunteers and staff said the facility would not endanger the neighborhood.
City development director Melanie Peavy said she received nearly two dozen letters and a petition with 85 signatures plus calls and emails opposing the exception. She said the property had been on the market for a decade.
“The program has a high success rate,” said Peavy, who recommended approval of the special exception. “Many individuals and families from surrounding communities have benefited greatly from House of Hope.”
But area residents said the campus would hurt their property values while endangering their children and grandchildren.
“It’s like putting a Cheesecake factory next to a Weight Watchers,” said Richard Spearman. “This is not the right fit. It is going to diminish our property values.”
Edna Adams said her 12-year-old granddaughter likes to ride her horse through nearby fields, but that she would not be safe with House of Hope nearby.
“It’s just across the street from a nice home,” said Dorothy Rocker. “We are trying to upgrade our safety rather than bring it down.”
Stephanie Bailey said her children love to play in the woods.
“The House of Hope would not allow them to play freely,” she said.
House of Hope volunteers and staff said the program is safe and there have been no incidents at the homes where it operates.
Lana Holmquist, one of the property’s current owners, said programs like House of Hope are badly needed.
“Is there any one of us who in our families has not been affected by drugs?” she asked.
Volunteer Joe Wilson said he has personal experience with addiction and his daughter recently marked her 18th year of sobriety.
House of Hope president Mary Starkey said the men in the program are sober, attend classes and many have children. The program follows them for two years after they finish the year in residence.
“The opioid crisis can have an impact on any of us,” she said. “Opioids have added a whole other dimension to what we do.”