Zoning decision on clinic appealed

Drug treatment facility received city's approval, but it was later retracted

Planned to dispense methadone


January 14, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

An operator of several methadone clinics in Maryland is fighting a zoning decision that prohibits him from opening such a treatment center in a Westminster neighborhood near downtown.

Neal Berch, who owns three such clinics in the state, had inquired with city officials last year about operating a center "specializing in methadone maintenance" in the 200 block of E. Main St., near Washington Road, according to correspondence between Berch's lawyer and the city's zoning administrator.

After initially finding that such a facility would be allowed under the city's zoning ordinance, Westminster zoning administrator Laurell Taylor changed her interpretation of the ordinance. Berch has filed an appeal with the city's Board of Zoning Appeals.

Methadone, a synthetic opiate, is given to heroin addicts to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and curb their habits. There is one methadone clinic in Carroll County, in the Eldersburg area.

In Maryland, clinic operators must apply for permission from the state Office of Health Care Quality to dispense the drug. Berch applied for such permission for a Westminster clinic but withdrew his application, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the Office of Health Care Quality.

Reached last week, Berch referred questions to his Baltimore-based lawyer, Beth Pepper, who also declined to comment. Taylor said she could not comment on a pending appeal.

Letters between Pepper and Taylor offered a glimpse and timeline into how Taylor came to her final decision.

On Oct. 13, Taylor determined that the treatment center was allowable in the mixed commercial and residential neighborhood on Main Street, classified as a downtown business zone.

She issued a certification letter stating that "professional offices and outpatient substance abuse centers specializing in methadone maintenance are a permitted use in the district," according to the certification letter.

But Taylor reversed her decision a few weeks later, saying that she had been wrong.

"After further review, I have determined that my original opinion was incorrect," Taylor wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to Berch. "As a result, I am writing to you to retract my earlier erroneous interpretation."

Pepper argued in a Nov. 25 letter that Taylor's initial decision was the correct one, saying "We believe that this is a factual error and mischaracterization of my client's program."

In response, Taylor explained her position this way:

Taylor said that Berch and another individual who came into her office Oct. 13 "stressed the counseling functions of the proposed operation. Thereafter, they added that methadone would be dispensed."

Not finding "clinics" listed in the downtown business zone and business zone districts, Taylor said she "incorrectly assumed that the zoning chapter of the city code did not treat `clinics' as an enumerated category of use."

"Focusing on the counseling aspect of the proposed activity, I incorrectly concluded that the proposed use fell under the permitted category of `professional offices' [in the downtown business zone] and furnished a certification letter," Taylor wrote.

Later, Taylor found that "medical and dental clinics" were listed as a permitted use, but in an agricultural residential zone district and in a neighborhood commercial zone district, leading her to reverse her original decision.

"Since clinics are an enumerated use category in certain city zones, and since the downtown business district only allows the uses specifically enumerated, I erred in concluding that the proposed clinic would be a permissible use in the downtown business zone," Taylor wrote in the letter.

Berch filed a notice of appeal Nov. 26 on the basis that the treatment center should be considered a professional office and regarded under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, according to an application for an hearing.

The appeal is scheduled to be heard Jan. 28.

Berch operates three other clinics in Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties. His plans to open a treatment center in Elkridge, which was fiercely opposed by residents, was dropped in August when the property owner terminated the clinic's lease.

Likewise, residents in the Westminster neighborhood of the proposed clinic site said they don't want to see the treatment center in what they consider is a predominantly residential community.

"I'm not against helping them, but isn't that why we have the Health Department and other programs in commercial areas and not in a residential neighborhood?" said David Corbin, whose photography studio and home is across the street from the proposed clinic site.

Gene Brothers, president of Brothers Insurance Associates, Inc. whose business is at the same address, said he did not know that his building was the proposed site of a methadone center.

When told, Brothers said, "I would be opposed to something like that close to my business. I know they have to go somewhere, but not around my business and my clients."

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