Vote Looms for Pagan Camp

28 Oct 2001

Vote looms over renewal
of retreat camp's
special-use permit

By DAWN BORMANN - The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/24/01 22:15


Harvest is under way in Leavenworth County. Tractors, cows and leaves enrich the landscape, but it is something altogether different that has dominated many local conversations lately.

Amid the autumn setting, a dispute rages about a camp that allows nudist retreats and pagan ceremonies. The issue could be decided today by the Leavenworth County Commission.

At the center of the controversy is Gaea Retreat Center, on 235th Street about 10 miles north of Tonganoxie. Since 1992 the camp has operated as a spiritual, emotional and religious retreat in the heart of Leavenworth County.

"All we are trying to do is provide a space where people can go and be who they are without being hassled," said John Pearse, president of Earth Rising Inc., the nonprofit agency that operates the camp. "As long as what people are doing is within the law and not interfering with other people's rights to be who they are, then they should be allowed to do it."

Pearse said the retreat center cannot be defined as a nudist colony or a pagan camp, although it allows nudity and paganism. Once a year, the 170-acre camp is rented to a nudist group. For that, leaders make no apologies. However, during most of the season, clothing is optional in designated areas, including a lake.

Religious rituals of all types are permitted along the trails, in cabins and elsewhere.

Hidden by trees and natural barriers, the camp is barely noticeable from the gravel road, camp leaders said.

Yet some neighbors say the camp's presence brings a seasonal headache to their lives. To them, the traffic, noise and nudity are irritating.

"It's nice to live in a free country, but we feel like their freedom is the cost of our freedom," said Aaron Hecht, a neighbor.

Hecht said he does not feel comfortable allowing his wife and children near the family's cattle pastures, where he has seen naked men hiking.

"It's not the kind of groups that we want around our children and around our community," he said.

Traffic wrecks along the gravel road also are a concern, Hecht said. It is not uncommon for dust to be kicked up by cars, obscuring other traffic from the view of motorists.

"There have been numerous ... wrecks," Hecht said. "People aren't used to driving gravel roads, and it creates a mess."

The arguments will be advanced at 3 p.m. today in the Leavenworth County Courthouse. The three commissioners will hear arguments on whether to renew a 10-year special-use permit for the site. The camp needs a special-use permit because the land is zoned for agricultural use.

A protest petition filed by nearby residents has forced the vote to be unanimous. Without the approval of all three commissioners, the camp, as it currently exists, will have to stop operating.

Earlier this month, the Leavenworth County Planning Commission denied the renewal on a 5-2 vote, even though Planning Director John Zoellner and his staff recommended renewal.

Zoellner said he was satisfied that camp leaders had met all of the legal criteria required for the permit. Although gravel, the road is designed to handle the traffic, and the county plans to pave it within 15 years.

He also said a camp has been operating there for decades. It was a nudist camp in the 1940s before being taken over by a religious group in 1957. Religious groups are believed to have occupied the camp until 1992, when Earth Rising Inc. began operating Gaea Retreat Center.

If the permit is not renewed, the camp operators' only option will be to file a lawsuit in Leavenworth County District Court, Zoellner said.

Commissioners Joe Daniels Jr., Bob Adams and Donald Navinsky declined this week to say how they intend to vote.

Pearse said he did not want to think about the prospect of not getting a permit renewal.

"The idea of losing it is just unimaginable to me," he said. "We have put a lot of time, a lot of love and a lot of money into (the camp). The complaints of the neighbors are about differences in values as much as anything else. It's not possible to legislate moral values and lifestyles and religions."

To reach Dawn Bormann, call (816) 234-5992 or send e-mail to dbormann@kcstar.com.


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