Officials at camp promise challenge
County denies permit fo rnudists’ retreat
Owners of a retreat center north of Tonganoxie say they're assembling a team of attorneys to challenge a Leavenworth County Commission decision.
Last Thursday, Leavenworth County commissioners voted, 2-1, against renewing a special use permit to Earth Rising Inc.
Representatives of Earth Rising, who have contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, say the ruling violates First Amendment and land-use rights.
Earth Rising owns a 168-acre retreat center at 25110 235th St., 10 miles north of Tonganoxie. The center is known for allowing nudism, as well as pagan-type rituals. The permit expired earlier this year, but the camp was allowed to operate pending approval of a new permit.
Now, John Pearse, president of Earth Rising's board of directors, said his group plans a challenge in U.S. District Court.
"We are filing for an injunction to continue business until this is settled in court and we're suing Leavenworth County," he said. "That's all there is to it. They've left us with no choice."
Last week, commissioners heard from numerous county residents about the camp who said it generated traffic and noise problems. Those residents also questioned activities at the camp.
In recent weeks, neighboring landowners gathered signatures on a petition against renewal of the center's permit.
Immediately after Thursday's commission decision, Pearse said he was shocked.
"I've put 10 years of my life in this and kaboom," he said. "We'll just have to take the next steps. One of our options will be to file suit and that's probably one we will have to take, I'm sorry to say."
Before the commission decision, John Zoellner, the county's director of planning and zoning, told a packed room that neighbors' complaints about traffic and noise could be handled by requiring individual special use permits. Large events at the center draw as many as 1,000 people.
And Zoellner said plantings or fencing could be installed to screen the property from public view.
"This is a land-use decision," Zoellner said. "It's not a moral decision."
Earth Rising's attorney, Robin Martinez, Kansas City, Mo., said it appeared that an earlier Leavenworth Planning Commission recommendation against the retreat's permit was based on the practices and beliefs of groups that use the retreat.
"This is an improper basis for land use decisions and provides no legal basis," Martinez said.
Several representatives of Camp Gaea spoke to county commissioners. Wanda Roths, who is caretaker and a board member, said the camp serves as a site for self-expression.
"I know we seem very passionate and loving about this land, because we are," Roths said. "A lot of women use this land. It's a place for them to come and feel safe about who they are without the discrimination they feel out in the world. If we decide to beat a slow drum beat and get into the heart of meditation, it is spiritual to us."
Moreover, she said, the retreat is a benefit, not a detriment, to Leavenworth County.
"We bother no one," Roths said.
Beth Hecht, a neighbor of Camp Gaea, said she and her husband, Aaron, and other neighbors, were concerned about keeping the neighborhood safe, as well as maintaining a wholesome place to rear children.
"The amount of traffic seen on County Road 30 during retreat weekends is boggling," she said.
And, Hecht expressed concern about nudity.
"The environment is favorable for pedophiles," she said.
Dennis Bixby, a new member of the Tonganoxie's Planning Commission, said if the permit were approved, necessary improvements regarding water, waste water disposal, and the federal disabilities act should be enforced.
Mike Stieben, a former Tonganoxie resident who lives in Leavenworth, referred to the Camp Gaea Website, which lists scheduled events.
"From my view of the Website information, the Kansas sodomy law does not allow homosexual acts even between consenting adults," Stieben said.
Stieben said Earth Rising, which has a not-for-profit designation, isn't a religious camp.
"They are hiding behind the establishment clause of the Constitution, the religious liberty clause," Stieben said.
"I looked through their Website and I didn't see anything about religion there."
Martinez, attorney for Earth Rising, said that a denial of the permit would be construed as an abridgement of civil liberties if the decision were made on moral grounds.
"I think liability is a slam dunk," Martinez said. "I think the only question the court will have to decide is how much the county will have to pay my clients."
Moreover, Martinez said, if a lawsuit were filed, it would be in federal court.
"The county would be liable for damages, as well as for attorney fees," Martinez said. "And I can assure you that in federal court that gets pretty darned expensive."
At one point, Martinez noted that assertions were being made that illegal activity was going on at Camp Gaea.
Bixby replied, "In your life experience, have you ever known of 175 naked people getting together and not having sex?"
"I wasn't aware that sex was illegal in Leavenworth County," Martinez said.
"Sodomy and pedophilia are," Bixby said.
Martinez said his client, John Pearse, would not condone illegal activity on the property.
"As far as other allegations that are being made, frankly they're simply that," he said.
Commissioner Don Navinsky said he had reviewed the retreat's permit several years ago.
"In my determination it was a low impact one, it had minimal impact on the surrounding areas," Navinsky said. "I believe the operation has expanded since then and is somewhat different than it was in 1992. I believe it does have some impact on the surrounding area now."
The land's history as a retreat center began in the 1940s when used as a nudist camp. Later it changed to a Baptist church camp. In 1992, Earth Rising Inc. purchased the land.
Commissioner Joe Daniels moved to approve the application for the permit, saying traffic and road concerns would be dealt with. Navinsky seconded the motion for purposes of discussion.
Because a valid petition had been filed, approval of the permit required a 3-0 commission vote.
Commissioner Bob Adams, saying he wanted to do what is best for the county, voted against Daniels' motion. Nav-insky also voted against the motion. The motion failed, 2-1.
On Monday, Aaron Hecht, whose property adjoins Camp Gaea, praised commissioners.
"We were proud of the commissioners for how they stood firm and did what they thought was best for the county," Hecht said. "They get bashed a lot and they have a tough job to do, but we feel that they made their decision in a fair and diplomatic way."
Although the decision went the way he wanted, Hecht said he didn't feel as if he had won a victory over Earth Rising.
"It wasn't any kind of game that's taken place," Hecht said. "We realize the loss that they have they're losing their permit."