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Lane, Christian drug center reach agreement

By By GREG BOLT

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Lane County will allow a Christian group to expand a residential drug treatment center for women as part of a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit.

County commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on a consent decree that will allow Teen Challenge International to house up to 20 women and children at a group care home on Bailey Hill Road in a rural area southwest of Eugene. The agreement could settle a long-running land use battle over expansion of the center.

But the agreement is between the county and Teen Challenge only and doesn't include neighbors who have been fighting the project. It's not clear whether the neighbors will continue to oppose it.

The county is not required to pay any damages under the settlement, and each party will cover its own legal costs. Teen Challenge estimates it has spent $158,000 pursuing a permit and has lost another $338,000 in revenue by not being able to expand, according to a settlement document.

Teen Challenge is a Missouri-based Christian group that operates nearly 200 centers around the country, including five in Oregon, that provide faith-based alcohol and drug treatment to men, women and teenagers. It established Hannah's House at the 5-acre parcel it purchased in 2007, but it currently is limited to five residents under county code and land use rulings in the case.

Teen Challenge sought permission to expand to 20 residents in 2008 with occupancy limited to women and their children plus three staff members. The county twice approved a special use permit for the center, but both approvals were overturned after neighbors appealed to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

At issue was whether wastewater from the expanded facility should be regulated more strictly than wastewater from a typical residential property. Neighbors argued that with so many people living on the property, the wastewater would be stronger and require a larger septic system, which the property might not support.

That prompted the lawsuit, filed earlier this year, in which Teen Challenge alleged it was the victim of religious discrimination and accused the county of violating fair housing laws. The group argued that federal law requires the county to make reasonable accommodations for the care home under the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights laws and the U.S. Constitution.

Attorneys for the county and Teen Challenge worked with U.S. District Judge Michael McShane to reach a settlement.

Under the deal, the county will allow the project to proceed without a special use permit or any other added restrictions as long as wastewater from the facility doesn't exceed certain limits.

Hannah's House would be allowed to expand in three phases over the next year. Following each expansion, the county will test the septic system to see if it is working properly and meets state standards. For two years after that, the county can conduct annual tests to check for any problems.

If the system doesn't meet state standards, Teen Challenge will have to make necessary improvements at its own expense.

Teen Challenge will be required to get standard building permits and any permits required by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The 20-person limit includes both women and children.

The agreement will be entered as a judgment in favor of Teen Challenge against Lane County.

Because the agreement is part of a federal court ruling, it would appear to take the matter out of state courts and require any appeal or challenge to go to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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