28 Oct 2001

John Richmeier
Leavenworth Times (Kansas)


Amid questions of "morals" and possible legal challenges, a majority of the Leavenworth County Planning Commission voted Wednesday night not to renew a special use permit for a Leavenworth county retreat center that is reportedly used for activities that some find objectionable.

The recommendation will be passed onto the Leavenworth County Commission which will vote on the renewal request for the Gaea Retreat Center.

During Wednesday's meeting, planning commissioner Ron Ewert passed out information to fellow members that he had found on the Internet concerning events held at Gaea and some of the groups that use the 168-acre retreat center.

He mentioned groups such as the Midwest Men's Naturist Gathering, which he said was a possible nudist organization, and the Alternative Hedonist Source.

He also read descriptions of some the events held at the retreat center. He said one fund-raising activity at Gaea reportedly allowed people to be "laid back, laid out, whipped and tickled."

John Pearse, president of Earth Rising Inc. which owns Gaea, said that particular description was intended to be light-heated. With the retreat center, he said his company is "offering a place where people can come where they can be who they are."

"We want to live our lives and be ourselves," he said.

The planning commissioners tabled the permit use issue at their September meeting. At that time, some citizens expressed concerns about the retreat center.

At Wednesday's meeting, John Zoellner, director of planning for the county, tried to answer some questions that were raised at the last meeting. He said the property that is now called Gaea opened as a facility for nudists sometime in the 1940s. A Baptist organization began using the property in the 1950s. The property was purchased by its current owner in 1993. Zoellner said a special use permit for the retreat center had been granted in 1995.

Based on a earlier letter from county counselor David Van Parys, Zoellner said he didn't think reported nudist activities at the retreat center violated a county ban on nudity. Zoellner believes the ban primarily pertains to nude dancing found in night clubs.

To address complaints of noise coming from the Gaea property, Zoellner recommended that a quite time be required beginning at 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends.

Zoellner said he worried that many of the activities at the retreat center would be protected by the Constitution. He said the place is viewed as a spiritual retreat, raising possible questions concerning one's freedom of religion. He said there may also be questions of one's freedom of expression.

Zoellner suggested the planning commission vote to recommend the renewal of the permit provided that normal requirements were met.

Ewert questioned how many of the groups he looked up on the Internet are spiritual or religious. He mentioned one group of individuals who call themselves pagans. He said the dictionary defines a pagan as being non-religious.

Ewert also questioned if the Gaea center was in fact a not-for-profit organization as its owner claimed. Ewert noted that groups that use the property are charged fees.

Pearse said the money collected in fees is used to operate the retreat center and no individual profits from the fees.

Planning commissioner Mary Luse said she worried about nudists using paths that run along the perimeter of the property. She was concerned that nudists may be in plain view to occupants of neighboring properties. She also suggested that the noise restriction take effect at 9 p.m.

Luse also said she was worried that the gravel road leading to the retreat center was not adequate for large events.

Planning commissioner John Matthews said all he and his fellow commissioners were supposed to do was determine whether or not the Gaea property can operate as a camp ground. He said if restrictions were placed on the people who could use the facility, the commission would be in the business of renting the property for the owner.

Despite suggested concerns of possible legal action, Ewert said he was looking at the morals of the issue.

"I think that morals have everything to do with this," he said. He said he would leave legal concerns to the county commissioners who will ultimately vote on the matter.

The commission ultimately voted to recommend the renewal request be denied. The vote was 5-2 with Matthews and Louis Box voting against the recommendation.


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