Operator argues for Westminster methadone center

Facility should be deemed an office, not a clinic, he tells appeals board

January 29, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Disputing a characterization of his proposed methadone treatment center in a Westminster neighborhood as a medical clinic, the operator of three other facilities in Maryland said he would offer a "medication-assisted program" in a professional office setting.

At yesterday's Board of Zoning Appeals hearing, Brian Prichard said his proposed center would provide therapy sessions, mental health counseling and medication assistance much like other professional offices in the downtown area that provide similar health-related services.

Supporters and opponents of the proposed center packed the Common Council chambers at Westminster City Hall, where they listened to more than three hours of opening statements and testimony by Prichard, who wants to open the Westminster Institute. The three-member board did not make a decision yesterday and is expected to reconvene at 2:30 p.m. today.

Prichard and co-applicant Neal Berch are fighting a zoning decision that prohibits them from opening the treatment center in the 200 block of E. Main St., near Washington Road. They operate three other clinics in Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties.

At issue in this case is whether the proposed facility should be categorized as a professional office or a medical clinic, which is not an allowed use in the downtown business zone.

After finding in October that such a treatment facility would be allowed under the city's zoning ordinance, Westminster zoning administrator Laurell Taylor changed her interpretation of the ordinance.

Taylor said she initially made an incorrect decision in finding that the center was allowed on downtown Main Street, which is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood.

She said she later determined that medical and dental clinics are allowed only in an agricultural residential zone and in a neighborhood commercial zone, leading her to reverse her original decision.

"This is a narrow zoning issue," said John McCabe, an attorney representing Taylor in the hearing. "The ultimate decision of the zoning administrator is correct in the scope and use of what is permitted and not permitted."

But attorney Beth Pepper, who is representing Prichard and Berch, said the definition of professional offices is broad and covers physicians and other health-related offices where such services are provided.

"We understand there might be a generalized picture of a methadone treatment program," Pepper said in her opening statement. "We're asking you to set aside the stereotypical picture and concentrate on the facts. ... Ms. Taylor got it right the first time."

Methadone, a synthetic opiate, is given to heroin addicts to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Carroll County has one methadone clinic, in the Eldersburg area.

In Maryland, clinic operators must apply for permission from the state Office of Health Care Quality to dispense methadone.

Prichard, who is the clinical supervisor at Open Arms Inc., a methadone treatment program in Waldorf, said the center's mission is to "provide affordable, accessible and comprehensive treatment for opiate addictions."

The proposed center in Westminster would also provide counseling, group therapy and mental health services to patients who enroll in the program, Prichard said. The facility, he said, would dispense methadone from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, and for less than three hours on Saturdays.

The state classifies his center as a medication-assisted program and not as a medical clinic, Prichard said.

Under questioning by Pepper, Prichard said he conducted a survey in the downtown business zone, where about 12 professional offices offer counseling and substance-abuse treatment programs, as well as dispense medication.

"We are a professional office where we provide professional services," he said.

Prichard also described the need for such a center in Carroll County, pointing out the 124 overdoses that were reported to Carroll Hospital Center last year.

After Prichard's testimony, a few people in the audience spoke in support of the center.

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