Board rejects methadone clinic proposal

Zoning appeals panel strictly interprets law

Supports earlier ruling

Not a permitted use in downtown business area

Westminster

March 17, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Basing its decision on strict interpretation of city zoning regulations, the Westminster Board of Zoning Appeals yesterday denied a methadone clinic the right to open on Main Street.

The three-member board's vote was unanimous.

"The crux of the matter is terms," said appeals board member Gary Beard. "This is a clinic and as such it is not a permitted use in the downtown business zone."

While medical, dental and law offices are permitted in the downtown area, which includes all of Main Street and a portion of Green Street, a clinic could only be located in the city's business zone, which is predominantly along Route 140, the board ruled.

Co-applicants Brian Prichard and Neal Berch, who operate three similar facilities in Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties, had hoped to open the clinic at 265 E. Main St., near Washington Road.

The decision comes after two days of hearings last month. Testimony included emotional accounts from families of substance abusers who would use clinic services and from neighbors who opposed the facility in an area of older homes and small offices.

"My heart goes out to these families," Beard said. "I know there is a lot of heartbreak."

Romeo Valianti, board chairman, commended both sides for their compelling testimony, which he said he had read many times.

"My decision is based on testimony and the law," he said.

Several of those who had testified attended yesterday's brief hearing, but they were not allowed further comment.

There has been one methadone clinic in Carroll County for nearly a decade - in the Eldersburg area.

"I know there are many young adults in Carroll County who can't get help to overcome addiction," said Wanda Semies of Eldersburg, who has worked with several recovering addicts at the Eldersburg clinic. "These clinics are staffed by people who believe in what they do and they are making a difference."

The latest admission numbers from Carroll Hospital Center show 146 heroin overdoses through the first 10 months of last year and nine heroin-related deaths, said Barbara Thomas, president of the county's Heroin Action Coalition. The county had 47 drug fatalities in 2002, 12 of those from heroin, she said.

The proposed clinic would have dispensed methadone, a synthetic opiate, to heroin addicts to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and curb their habits.

The facility also would have provided counseling, group therapy and mental-health services to patients enrolled in the program, said Prichard, who is clinical supervisor at Open Arms Inc., a methadone treatment program in Waldorf, Charles County.

"These clinics help young adults get their lives back," said Semies. "They can become productive again. These are our kids we are talking about. Carroll County kids."

Prichard had testified last month that the proposed treatment center would offer a "medication-assisted program" in a professional office setting. The clinic would dispense methadone from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays and for less than three hours on Saturdays, he said.

The board remained focused on the clinic concept.

"A physician once a week with nurses and counselors handling the day-to-day work is a clinic, not a doctor's office," said Beard.

"I was really hopeful the board would rule in favor," Prichard said yesterday. "I have not investigated further. I had planned on the Westminster location and I had a lease for the building."

Westminster zoning administrator Laurell Taylor had initially found last year that such a facility would be permitted under the city's zoning ordinance, but later changed her interpretation of the law.

By the time Taylor determined that medical and dental clinics are allowed only in a commercial zone, Berch and Prichard had signed a lease. They then filed an appeal with the zoning appeals board.

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