Communities opposed to treatment centers up against U.S. law

Federal act demands that facilities be treated like doctor's offices

July 25, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Officials from a West Baltimore church recently asked the city's planning commission to block a methadone clinic slated to open near a church-run program that provides after-school activities for children.

Instead, the pastor and secretary of the Life Celebration Center in Midtown-Edmondson got a taste of things to come for city church or neighborhood groups seeking to oppose the opening of drug treatment facilities in their midst. After hearing them out, board members told church officials that the commission could not bar the clinic based on the church's concerns about drawing drug addicts to the area.

The reason? Federal court rulings in the past few years to the effect that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, drug treatment programs must be considered the same as other medical facilities and be allowed to open anywhere that a doctor's or dentist's office could.

The City Council is about to consider a proposal that would enshrine that requirement in city law by making it possible for drug treatment centers to open without council approval, thereby heading off potential lawsuits from treatment providers.

The proposal, which has the backing of Mayor Martin O'Malley, is expected to generate opposition from neighborhood activists, some of whom stalled the bill last year after arguing that it would give communities no say in the siting of clinics.

But as last week's hearing showed, the law's intended aim, of making it possible for drug treatment clinics to open despite neighborhood opposition, is in one sense already in effect. While treatment providers are still required to go before the planning commission and City Council for approval, board members are too wary of lawsuits to do anything but rubber-stamp the proposal before them.

"We need to make sure that the fact that this [proposal] is for a substance abuse treatment center does not play in our considerations. If we decide we don't want a substance abuse center here, we're in violation of federal law," planning Chairman Peter Auchincloss told the pastor and secretary after they had presented their case.

This response dismayed the church representatives, who thought that the whole purpose of the hearing was to decide whether the proposed site, a warehouse in the 700 block of N. Pulaski St., was an appropriate location for a clinic where about 400 people would receive the heroin substitute methadone as well as counseling. After the hearing, they said they didn't understand why the board was hearing their concerns if it was not inclined to act on them.

"You're going to tell me that because of federal law we can't do anything about a treatment center in our neighborhood with such high crime already and with so many children?" said Heather Lovett, the church secretary, who testified with the Rev. Rodney James. "That's very distressing."

There is one way in which the existing approval process is still making it hard for providers to open new programs, even as the planning board is showing itself unwilling to block proposed clinics, said Ellen Weber, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and activist on behalf of treatment centers.

Many providers have difficulty getting the councilman in the proposed clinic's district to sponsor an ordinance on their behalf, which keeps them from coming before the city panels. That is a big reason, she says, why few methadone clinics have opened in the city in the past decade, thereby limiting treatment capacity.

In the case of the clinic up for approval this week, the organization behind the proposal, National Addiction Services, was able to get backing from Councilwoman Agnes Welch. The organization contacted several community associations in the area about the proposal and met with no opposition, said its lawyer, Claude E. Hitchcock.

Hitchcock said he did not know why officials from the church, which has a main building around the corner from the proposed site, on Edmondson Avenue, were not made aware of the proposal until they saw a sign announcing the planning commission meeting on the warehouse. He also said the clinic would comply with the planning board's request, made in conjunction with its approval of the plan, that the clinic do its best to address the church's concerns.

After the hearing, city planning director Otis Rolley III said he understands why the church members might feel their protests were in vain after the board said it had no authority to act on them. But he said the hearing had a purpose anyway, to foster a conversation between treatment providers and resistant neighbors.

On the other hand, he said, the hearing process makes for a bureaucratic hurdle that, under federal law, treatment providers shouldn't have to contend with.

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