Archive for Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Judge OKs settlement of Camp Gaea suit

Neighbors who petitioned against camp unhappy at outcome of lawsuit against the county

April 17, 2002

The dispute between Leavenworth County and Earth Rising Inc. has been settled.

On Tuesday, Leavenworth County District Judge David King approved an agreement between the county and Earth Rising, which means Camp Gaea, a 168-acre spiritual retreat center known for pagan rituals and nudity will be allowed to stay open.

The camp, which is 10 miles north of Tonganoxie, has been owned since 1992 by Earth Rising, a not-for-profit corporation. Last summer when Earth Rising applied for renewal of the camp's special-use permit, the county planning and zoning commission voted to recommend against renewing the permit. On Oct. 25, after heated discussions among camp representatives, attorneys and area residents who opposed the camp, Leavenworth County commissioners voted 2-1 to deny the camp's special-use permit.

Commissioner Joe Daniels, who in October voted against denying the special-use permit, had visited the camp three or four times when he worked as the county's environmental health director. He helped lead the camp in installing a sewage lagoon and other related improvements to comply with the county's regulations.

"I've been out there on several occasions," Daniels said Monday. "I felt secure in my understanding of what happens out there."

Immediately after the commission in October voted to deny the special-use permit, Earth Rising board chairman John Pearse vowed to fight the decision, claiming civil rights violations. On Nov. 26, the group filed an appeal in Leavenworth County District Court. In March and April, both sides reached agreement after meeting in mediation.

So Earth Rising will not have to reapply for permits if the camp:

Complies with county sanitation regulations.

Provides copies of a plan to the county's emergency management office for hazard planning relating to fire protection, escape routes posted, notification procedures and emergency contacts and a severe weather shelter.

Pays a commercial transportation impact fee.

Places and maintains at least once a year 600 linear feet of dust control on the roadway.

Notifies the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Department at least 48 hours before any event that will have a projected attendance of more than 250 people. Attendance at one annual event may be up to 1,500, with attendance at all other events limited to 750.

Ensures that during late-night and early-morning hours, noise generated at the camp not exceed 80 decibels, as measured at any location of the camp's perimeter.

Complies with local, state and federal rules and regulations.

Beth and Aaron Hecht live next door to the camp. They, and others who own property nearby, garnered 300 signatures on petitions last fall petitions asking the county to deny the camp's renewal.

"Obviously, it's more than two or three people complaining about the place," Hecht said.

But Hecht said the group didn't hire an attorney.

"We're not a rich community by any means and we can't afford to hire any big power attorneys to go our way," Hecht said, comparing her group to Earth Rising. "They've had their fund-raisers, and they've got their dollars and they've been able to play the game."

Wanda Roths, an Earth Rising board member and caretaker who has lived at the camp for four years, said she hopes this settles the concerns of neighbors and area residents who signed the petition.

"We're hoping everybody will just accept this decision in good faith and go on with their lives," Roths said.

And, for the visitors who frequent the camp, Roths said this is good news.

"They know this is a place they can come and not be harassed in any way, no matter what their religious or sexual beliefs are," Roths said.

Roths recalled her reaction at October's commission hearing when camp opponents complained about pagan rituals, nudity and homosexuality, and accused camp members of pedophilia.

"It was quite a shock," Roths said. "We had no idea that the neighbors were upset with us not one had come to us and talked about any problems."

Further, Roths a mother of four, who is a grandmother, said the accusations of pedophilia were unbelievable.

"No one's gong to hurt a child in any way, shape or form out there," Roths said.

Paganism, Roths said, is an earth-based religion.

"We have different goddesses and gods that we look to, rather than the traditional gods of the Bible," she said.

However, she said, all faiths are welcome.

"We have Catholics that come here and Christians that come here," Roths said. "We just refer to them as pagan-friendly."

A nearby landowner, who had opposed the renewal of the camp's permit, called the county's agreement with Earth Rising "sad."

"I don't think our county needs this type of an organization," he said. "It's a bad situation for the community up there. There will never be anybody who will want to buy my land for a place to live since it's down the road from a nudist camp."

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