Easier OKs for clinics sought

Drug facilities could open without public approval

Bills also target group homes

Mayor notes legal need

some communities worry

August 08, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The City Council is considering two bills that would allow drug treatment clinics and group homes to open without public approval, a move Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration says is required by federal law but one that communities fear could tear apart fragile neighborhoods.

Drug treatment and disability advocates say the legislation would help to bring in needed social services providers. They have threatened to sue the city unless it complies with the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The proposals would allow drug treatment clinics to open in areas zoned for medical offices, such as those of dentists or pediatricians. Group homes, including programs for recovering addicts, would be allowed in any residential area. Larger homes, those with nine people or more, could require review by the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals.

The proposed policy shift has ignited a fiery debate over the rights of addicts as disabled people protected under federal law as community groups demand a fair and open government process.

Residents in areas with lower rents feel especially vulnerable because they fear that drug clinics and group homes would flock to their neighborhoods to avoid high rents elsewhere.

"I'm uncomfortable any time you put the communities in a position where you strip their power away," said Jacquiline Johnson, 58, of Edmondson Village. "These bills are symbolic of the paternalistic attitude this administration has exhibited toward certain communities. We have a right to determine how our communities look."

The O'Malley administration has presented the bills as a way to remove economic status and race from the zoning process, making it just as easy to open a treatment center or group home in Guilford or Roland Park as in Walbrook and Park Heights.

City Planning Director Otis Rolley III has said he will press for passage of the bills. The current city code requires public hearings and council approval for treatment clinics and group homes, a process that sets a different standard for the disabled, he said.

"These bills are not only consistent with federal law but [also with] Baltimore's policy in dealing with substance abuse," said Rolley, who has been assigned by O'Malley and the council to modernize the zoning code. "They make a whole lot of sense."

Rolley said officials in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties have amended their zoning codes to comply with federal law. Baltimore County officials have been in a legal battle over their zoning code for years. Advocates have filed two lawsuits against the county, winning the first in U.S. District Court in 2000. The most recent case, filed in May 2002 by advocates who say the county's zoning code still violates the ADA, has not been settled.

Nationwide issue

Cities across the country are debating the thorny issue. Last year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision that city officials in Covington, Ky., violated the ADA when they refused to issue a zoning permit to a company that wanted to open a drug treatment center and group home for recovering addicts.

In 1999, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a judge to reconsider a methadone clinic's challenge to an ordinance in Antioch, Calif., that banned such clinics within 500 feet of residential areas.

In Baltimore, advocates argue that the city's zoning code violates the ADA for drug treatment clinics and the Fair Housing Act for group homes. They say the council should pass the new bills if it wants to avoid a costly lawsuit. The bills were unanimously endorsed by the city Planning Commission in May.

"It's a question of whether the city wants to spend its federal funds on litigation that is destined to fail, or put the money into drug treatment," said Ellen M. Weber, an assistant professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law and an activist. "I don't think that's a difficult decision."

Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, who has delayed hearings on the bills as chairwoman of the Land Use Committee, is looking for proof that the city needs to take such action.

"I want to see where it says in the ADA or Fair Housing Act that this is what we have to do to be in compliance," Garey said. "If there is another way to do it, let's look at it."

Garey, who postponed setting hearing dates until advocates flooded her with e-mails, has said she will announce two hearing dates, one for each bill, next month.

Community associations have also expressed concerns about the bills, but most of those objections are based on negative experiences with unlicensed facilities, which would not be affected by the legislation.

"We need to look at what we have at the moment and see if it works," said Carole Lupunga-Ferguson, a West Baltimore resident who said three unruly unlicensed group homes are in her neighborhood. "I have made phone calls [to council members], and I don't get any answers."

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