Methadone clinic organizers sue Baltimore County for $6 million Suit says exclusion of Catonsville facility violates disabilities law

January 29, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Operators of a proposed methadone clinic in Catonsville have filed a $6 million federal suit against Baltimore County for blocking the clinic's opening last summer, saying the county's actions violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The suit, patterned after a successful suit in New York state, challenges local zoning controls on methadone clinics, which state health officials see as a way to help fight a surge in inhaled heroin use by middle-class drug abusers.

"We just believe they've set up a particular zoning class to keep this clinic out," said Columbia attorney James L. Mayer, who filed the suit Jan. 12 on behalf of Nicholas Antonis, president of Jacob's Ladder Health Services Inc. "The county is refusing to acknowledge that we have the right zoning."

Clinic operators are seeking $1 million in compensatory damages, $5 million in punitive damages and a federal court injunction blocking further interference by the county. No hearing date has been set.

Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, refused comment on the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. But he said, "We're not opposed to them being in the county."

Similar zoning disputes have arisen in New York, Ohio, New Mexico and Massachusetts in recent years involving drug treatment clinics that offer methadone, a synthetic, addictive substitute for heroin.

Baltimore County zoning law makes no specific reference to methadone clinics, which are considered "community care centers" and require a special zoning exception and a public hearing.

But last year, county officials and local residents defeated attempts to locate private, for-profit methadone clinics in Catonsville, Randallstown and Loreley, near White Marsh.

They also prevailed on state health department officials to stop issuing permits for county locations until a local zoning policy for methadone clinics could be developed. No policy has emerged.

Jacob's Ladder was given a provisional state permit in the spring, but state officials withdrew it after intense county pressure. County zoning officials later informed Antonis that he needs a special zoning exception to open his clinic and might not qualify under zoning for a medical office.

But Mayer argued that the requirement for a special zoning exception is illegal and that a methadone clinic should be treated like any medical office.

"There is no rational reason as to why only offices, medical offices and medical clinics which specialize in the treatment of substance-addicted and mentally or emotionally disabled handicapped persons should be separately classified as 'community care centers,' " the suit said.

The fight occurs against a background of increasing use of much purer forms of heroin, and a disagreement among local health officials over the need for more clinics.

C. Todd Rosendale, policy chief for the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said more clinics are needed to deal with the growing number of heroin users. Many addicts getting methadone at a new Harford County clinic are from Baltimore County, he said.

But Michael M. Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse, said many of the new users need only detoxification and can then be treated with therapy. Methadone is needed only for long-term addicts, he argued.

Gimbel also said he has seen no long waiting lists at the county's nonprofit methadone center in Timonium.

In a similar dispute in White Plains, N.Y., the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July upheld a lower court's ruling that local zoning restrictions violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by discriminating against one class of people who need treatment -- addicts.

Sally Friedman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the White Plains case, said, "What's happening in Baltimore County is even more egregious than what went on in White Plains" because of Baltimore County's refusal to allow any private clinics to open.

Locally, however, some Catonsville residents and officials remain opposed to plans for a clinic in what they say is a residential community.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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