Baltimore County will pay a company that had sought to open a methadone clinic in Pikesville $20,000 as part of a legal settlement that effectively keeps the company away from the neighborhoods where the original proposal sparked opposition.
The agreement, which includes a provision that county officials will not "hinder or delay" START Inc. from efforts to open four such clinics in areas zoned for manufacturing, ends one of two challenges to a 2002 law that limits, through zoning, where methadone can be dispensed in the county.
The law places limitations on state-licensed medical clinics, which include methadone facilities, that want to locate in areas zoned for business and office uses, requiring them to receive extra approvals and to be at least 750 feet from residential neighborhoods. But such clinics are allowed in manufacturing zones "as a matter of right." The location that START had leased for use as a clinic on Reisterstown Road was zoned for business use and is near homes.
"The bottom line is they agreed to accept and comply with the law, and that's a win for the county," said Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who represents Pikesville and was the methadone bill's main sponsor.
For START, the settlement ensures that future efforts to locate a clinic in the county's manufacturing zones won't be met by roadblocks, said Vicki L. Dexter, an attorney for the company. The settlement agreement includes potential financial penalties should officials try to stymie START's new efforts, Dexter said.
The company has made no "final decisions" about how it will proceed or where it might open clinics, she said.
"We continue to believe that there's a real need for service in Baltimore County," she said. "We think this is the best way and the most expeditious way to move toward providing these services."
Methadone is used to help relieve withdrawal symptoms for people trying to beat addictions to heroin or prescription painkillers like Percocet and OxyContin.
The $20,000 represents the amount of money the county would likely have spent for experts and depositions if the case had proceeded to trial, said Baltimore County Attorney Jay Liner.
And since the law already provides for the clinics in manufacturing zones, the acknowledgment in the settlement that START can locate four clinics in those areas -- so long as they get all the necessary approvals -- merely follows the law, he said.
"We're not really doing anything here that the county wouldn't do otherwise," Liner said. If START is "in compliance, they will open."
Plans by START and A Helping Hand LLC to open methadone clinics within a half mile of each other in Pikesville three years ago met stiff resistance from community members who said they feared that clinics so close to their homes would hurt property values and increase crime.
Kamenetz introduced legislation restricting where state-licensed medical clinics could be located on April 1, 2002, and the law passed the County Council two weeks later -- the same day A Helping Hand received the necessary approvals to open and began scheduling appointments at its facility on Slade Avenue.
Both companies later filed suit in federal court. But although A Helping Hand was allowed to keep its clinic open while the lawsuits moved forward, START was unable to open its doors. The company claimed in its lawsuit that delays in the permitting process were "orchestrated" by county officials.
START later forfeited its lease at the Reisterstown Road site, according to the suit.
Opening a methadone clinic requires a "significant investment," and the settlement ensures that the company won't lose that investment again, Dexter said.
"The most important thing to us is to know we have the ability to hold the county's feet to the fire," she said.
A Helping Hand's lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. A scheduling conference in the case has been set for Oct. 18.