Commission denies permit renewal for Pagan retreat center

28 Oct 2001

Commission denies permit renewal for retreat center that allows nudity

By MARK WIEBE - The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/25/01 22:15


Amid threats of lawsuits and residents' fears of illegal sexual activity, the Leavenworth County Commission voted 2-1 Thursday against renewing a special-use permit for a spiritual retreat center that allows nudist retreats and pagan ceremonies.

At an hourlong public hearing, opponents expressed reservations about traffic, noise and chance sightings of nude persons strolling through the woods.

Some claimed the camp was responsible for numerous wrecks nearby. But they also expressed another fear: that the nudity the camp allows could foster pedophilia and other illegal sexual activities.

"What about the moral cost of this?" asked county resident Mike Stieben.

"... I want to raise (my son) in a world that is not like this world."

Opponents offered no proof of illegal sexual activity.

The operators of the Gaea Retreat Center, on 235th Street about 10 miles north of Tonganoxie, said no such behavior takes place on their property. What's more, they argued, opposition to their center was prompted more by the center's beliefs than by how it used the land.

The center has been operated by the nonprofit organization Earth Rising Inc. since 1992. The same site has housed camps owned by various religious organizations since the 1940s. In its current use, the center has attracted hundreds of people during summer camps.

Earlier this month, the Planning Commission voted 5-2 to deny the permit, opposing Planning Director John Zoellner's recommendation to renew it. Zoellner said Thursday that no one had complained to him about the camp until the issue of renewing the permit came up earlier this year.

The center's attorney, Robin Martinez of Kansas City, said his client could easily address complaints about noise and traffic. The center also could build barriers to block the view of camp areas in which clothing is optional.

But, Martinez said, the center could do nothing about objections to its beliefs and practices. If the land housed a Baptist camp, he argued, there would be no issue.

"Unfortunately, (arguments against the center) seem to be more grounded in intolerance ... than they are in the use of the land," he said. Martinez added that his clients, who had invested $800,000 in the property, were prepared to fight the issue in court.

Later, in an exchange between Martinez and another opponent, Dennis Bixby of Tonganoxie, the issue returned to sexual behavior.

Bixby, who had earlier argued that the camp placed too large a load on the county's infrastructure, asked: "Have you ever known of 175 naked people getting together and not having sex?"

"I didn't know sex was illegal in Leavenworth County," Martinez said.

"Sodomy and pedophilia are," Bixby responded.

Commissioners Donald Navinsky and Bob Adams opposed the renewal, which required a unanimous vote for approval. Commissioner Joe Daniels supported it. Daniels said he thought the camp should exist as long as it followed the county's laws, including one that bans public nudity.

Navinsky said he thought the camp had greatly expanded since it last applied for a permit in 1995 and that the permit, which expired earlier this year, did not address that expansion.

Adams referred to the pledge he said he made to voters, that he would make the county "a better place to live, work and raise our families."

To reach Mark Wiebe call (816) 234-5995 or send e-mail to mwiebe@kcstar.com.


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