Drug-treatment, group-home bills backed

City commission hears testimony on plans to aid care of substance abusers

May 07, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

After more than four hours of conflicting and often emotional testimony, the city Planning Commission endorsed legislation last night that would permit drug treatment centers in all nonresidential areas of Baltimore and streamline the opening of group homes of all sizes.

About 30 speakers - ranging from recovering drug addicts to social activists - overwhelmingly supported steps that would make it easier to care for Baltimore's estimated 60,000 substance abusers.

But several criticized the group-home bill as not addressing the real problem, even though it would remove red tape from the approval process.

The two bills were introduced Monday in the City Council at the behest of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, which wants to bring the city zoning code in compliance with federal and state disability regulations. The council, which must approve the bills before they become law, will hold separate public hearings on the measures at an undetermined date.

Three of the Planning Commission's 10 members voiced reservations about the bills. "You are putting a greater burden on the city over other jurisdictions," said Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the panel's only City Council representative.

Commissioner Javier Bustamante said the body must look past the crime often associated with group homes and drug treatment centers. "This is a civil rights issue and we have to support it," he said.

Regina Clay Drake, a citizen representative on the commission, welcomed the prospects of the city's wealthier neighborhoods sharing the burden for social problems. "This will open it up to the Roland Parks, Bolton Hills and Guilfords," she said.

Group-home critics were led by Arlene Fisher, a Lafayette Square social worker. She argued that the bill does nothing to regulate unlicensed group homes, which have sprouted in great numbers in a handful of neighborhoods, causing headaches to community organizations.

"There is no mechanism for enforcement," Fisher said. "Going to zoning to fight is not as easy as you may think."

During the discussion, Spector emerged as a vocal critic of the effort to streamline the location of group homes. Whether licensed or unlicensed, they have disproportionately concentrated in undervalued neighborhoods of old frame and brick houses in West and Northwest Baltimore, according to city experts.

Without a change in state regulations, she warned, the proposed streamlining is not enough. "You are shooting yourself in the foot," she added, saying a proliferation of as many as four group homes on a single block "changes the fabric of the neighborhood."

Peter Auchincloss, the planning panel's chairman, acknowledged that enforcement is an issue.

Nevertheless, many speakers described the two bills as a move in the right direction.

"Seize this wonderful opportunity," said Beth Pepper, a lawyer, saying the proposals would bring Baltimore "into the 21st century."

Ellen M. Weber, a University of Maryland law professor, echoed that view. "Standards that may have made sense 40 years ago just don't make any more," she said.

The testimony of Weber, an activist and expert in disability laws that cover everything from physical and mental defects to addiction, underscored the city's legal dilemma.

Under questioning, she acknowledged that regardless of what code reforms are passed by the council, activists may still sue the city if they think the outcome is not in total compliance with federal mandates.

In locating drug treatment facilities, the O'Malley bill would remove the City Council from the process. Under current practice, such centers - including moves to new sites - are subject to legislative approval and public hearings by the council.

The bill would permit treatment centers in all nonresidential areas, without being subjected to council hearings and votes.

Henry Trogdon, president of the Coldspring Community Association and Woodlands Community Association, said the two proposals "could really tear our communities apart." He said the city needs to give community groups notice and to enforce existing controls on group homes and treatment centers.

Bonnie L. Cypull, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, welcomed the proposal as an effort to remove "stigmatization" from treating addiction.

She said that 40 contractors in the city, and several in surrounding counties, treat 21,000 Baltimore addicts. Nevertheless, she estimated that only 40 percent of addicts wanting treatment can find slots. And slots are so scarce that addicts often have to wait up to three months for outpatient treatment and methadone programs.

Another complication, according to Cypull, is that most treatment centers tend to be on the west side, with little or nothing along the northern rim or in East Baltimore.

"Most substance abusers are members of families and neighborhoods," she told the commission, underscoring that chances of success are greater if the treatment is close-by.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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