Bulloch County Planning and Zoning Commission members voted unanimously Thursday to deny a conditional use request by the owners of a religious retreat that has reportedly treated soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder via exorcism.
Kathleen Mather, who along with husband Tim Mather owns Bear Creek Ranch on Scarboro Road near Portal, denied the ministry treats soldiers with PTSD anymore, but the ministry has been featured “in the New York Times and other newspapers,” including the Washington Post, where articles highlighted the practice, said Sandra Clark, whose family lives near the Mathers property. “It is on the Internet.”
In a January, 2014 Washington Times article headlined “Soldiers plagued by PTSD turn to Georgia exorcists for relief,” a reporter stated the Mathers have performed over 5,000 exorcisms on people, including veterans. The work is described in a book, “Demon Camp” by Jennifer Percy, and tells in detail how soldiers recalled their experiences, according to the article.
Clark, as well as others who spoke Thursday to the Planning and Zoning Commission, expressed concerns about the safety of having people with PTSD treated at the property, where she and others said erupts in gunfire several times a week.
Rhonda Busby, Dennis Pope, Allison Clark and more who live in the area of the Mathers property all spoke about the gunfire, which they each described as rapid and loud. Ray Clark said he has over 30 years’ experience in law enforcement and identified the firearms used as “automatic assault weapons.”
Mathers denied recent target shooting but admitted the ministry had used the property in the past for such sport. Family and friends use the land for target practice now, she said, adding that they no longer treat soldiers with PTSD and do not use target practice in their retreats.
She told the commission the Bear Creek Ranch ministry hosts “deliverance retreats” for groups of up to 15 people, and asked for a conditional use of the almost 20-acre Ag-5 zoned property so as to construct guest housing for retreat participants.
She also said the property would be used for private and public events such as weddings and reunions.
Construction has already started on a building that Tim Mathers told county officials would be used for family housing when he obtained a permit, said Bulloch County Code Enforcement Officer Sydney Alston.
However, information from the Mathers’ website (www.bearcreekportal.com) outlines a “Cowboy Town” concept that suggests plans to build seven of the buildings to be used for retreat guests.
“We will build a series of suites along a boardwalk of a cowboy town. They will be individual rooms with a queen size bed and a private bathroom for each,” the website states. “Each suite will have a cowboy town facade on the front and named according to its cowboy shop decor. There may be a sheriff's office, a tack store, a blacksmith, a dry goods, a parlor, billiards, etc.”
Mathers, when questioned about the website, explained that plans had changed, but the information on the website had not been altered.
During the meeting it was also discovered that remodeling and repairs on the old Scarboro House, where the Mathers live on the property, was not permitted.
Planning and Zoning Director Randy Newman told the commission those permits would have to be issued in retrospect after required inspections were done.
Mathers said the retreats are like home gatherings, not business or commercial. “We do home church like people do home schooling,” she said.
However, many commission members questioned the Mathers’ charging people for the retreats. According to the website, the charges range from $225 to $275 per person, and one retreat, listed as filled, is planned for May 20-22.
Four more are planned for June, and 14 additional retreats are scheduled for the rest of the year, according to the website. Donations for the project are also solicited on the website.
At the meeting Thursday, neighbors complained about the noise from gunfire, as well as safety concerns, ciaiming some of their homes are in line of fire. Other concerns included heavy traffic on quiet, residential dirt roads.
Bulloch County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the conditional use request June 7 at 5:30 p.m. in the Bulloch county Annex, taking into consideration the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation for denial.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.